“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.
Chapter 2: Excerpts from the Book of Songs
An archaeological dig in 1992 unearthed a well preserved volume of work containing poems believed lost to time. There are several entries dated to the Luo Dynasty believed to be that of Emperor Luo Binghe.
This is the first time the English translations have been made available.
Wow. This is my first foray into the world of SVSSS and I am overwhelmed by the response and love this story has received -- (╥_╥).
Thank you for reading.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
From the Book of Songs (attributed to Emperor Luo):
Why does Binghe
Have to write poems?
My hand cramps
From holding this brush
Binghe wants a dragon hat
Like the one Wei Zhou has
But with a tail
Because it is better
Evil Liu has a dog
Why can’t Binghe?
Shizun will give in
Because of Binghe’s tears
Shizun smells like lotus
From Madam Wu’s garden
But Binghe can’t go
Is he hiding presents?
Binghe loves Shizun’s hair
Even if Binghe can’t brush it
This one is too small
So Yingying has to help
Binghe loves Shizun
Shizun does not believe Binghe
But we are two koi
In the Concubine Level 6 courtyard
At night Shizun plays the guqin
Binghe watches from behind the bedscreen
A dancing shadow traced in the dragonfly lamp
But Shizun is brighter
If this Luo cannot cross the Yellow River
Shizun remember me
When we rise from phoenix ash as two koi
We will swim in the shade of the lotus blossom
Found in the marginalia of the novel the Warlord and his Fake Eunuch, Qinghua:
This one waits for the cricket song
It is a thousand miles to Fenghao
And a thousand miles to return
This one's tea grows cold by the window
This is super loosely based in the late Shang Dynasty (though probably more like the Qin).
True story. There was no first hand evidence of the Shang Dynasty until someone realized that the scratched bones they were looting near Anyang city might actually be writing. It turned out that these oracle bones (repurposed for a thriving antiquities market) made up a corpus of over a million records dating from the Shang Dynasty.
Chapter 3: Deer-ly Beloved
Shen Yuan upgrades his rabbits to a pond. What could possibly happen?
“I want to put in a pond,” Shen Yuan told the gardener he shared with two other Concubine Level 4s. “The deer didn’t work out and I’ve lost one of the rabbits.” Binghe was looking off in the distance, not making eye-contact. “I think fish would be less likely to get into my rooms.” The gardener had brought an assistant he’d never seen before, a plump-faced boy who was going at the grass with a pair of shears. “Can we get the gold ones?”
Whether or not they could get the gold ones, they were going to get the gold ones.
“Can we have frogs?”
Frogs were not, in fact, a good idea. While Binghe slept like a kicking, drooling log, Shen Yuan was up all night listening to them plot his demise. He threw a pillow at them, but it had no effect. Just sinking into the pond with a fat plop.
“Master Shen,” Yingying said the next day, taking in the dark circles under his eyes and very deserved grumbling, “What happened?”
“I’m under the weather, Yingying. I’m going to rest today,” it was already 3 o’clock. “Please let Madam Wu know that I will not be able to join her.” As soon as Yingying had left for her errand and Shen Yuan swathed in blankets, he pulled out the Golden Peaches of Emperor’s Court and got to work.
Shen Yuan, who was a fan of Mian Hua Su Liu, had read all of their works and was reduced to reading something by… he looked at the cover... Cart up the Mountain . What sort of pen name was that? Unfortunately (fortunately) the story wasn’t much better. A very spoiled male concubine in the Emperor’s harem found that the deer in his garden is actually a cursed prince who takes human shape to do all sorts of filthy things with him. As the cursed man still has antlers, several of the activities were completely ridiculous. In fact there was a scene where he used the antlers to… well, it was just not possible.
Despite his grumbling, Shen Yuan could not put it down. “I must finish it,” he told himself. “Now that I’ve bought it.” In the end, the cursed man is set free, promising to return when he was, well, less of a ruminant. “I could write something better than this!”
But he wouldn’t. Criticizing someone else’s work was more enjoyable.
While wallowing in Cart up the Mountain’s hackery, Binghe came into their rooms after making his daily rounds for treats and cheek pinching. That boy was such a masochist. “Shizun!” He stopped at the bed, mouth rounded. “Shizun! Why are you still in bed?”
“This Shizun is not feeling well, Binghe.”
His lips trembled, eyes glistening with unshed tears. “You’re not going to... leave me , Shizun?!”
“Silly Binghe,” Shen Yuan managed, tucking the book under his blanket. “This Shizun would never leave you.”
“Because Shizun loves Binghe?”
“Yes. Because Shizun loves his sticky bun, er--” They looked at each other. Shizun in horror and BInghe’s tears evaporating for a look of absolute delight. “Shizun loves Binghe.”
“Am I Shizun’s sticky bun?” Please drop this, Binghe. Shizun has made a mistake! He is too ill! The sticky bun in question knocked the life out of Shen Yuan when he threw himself over the blankets. Shen Yuan’s heart pounded with feelings - and Binghe’s elbow.
Shen Yuan deflected with, “What did Binghe do today?”
Binghe’s adventures rivaled Cart up the Mountain’s rambling prose. But without wild deer-man frolicking. “Oh, Shizun! If you’re not feeling well, let this Binghe take care of you!”
This was ominous. His sticky bun was still very small and ended up breaking more things than he successfully used. “This Shizun will be--”
But Binghe slid down - with much of Shen Yuan’s blanket - to the ground and was off again. There was the sound of little feet, the wobble of something almost falling, the ring of something heavy sliding across wood, and then the splash of water. This did not bode well.
Sighing, Shen Yuan got up and mournfully folded his blankets. Outside, the frogs continued to mock him.
Binghe had the bronze vase at the pond. Where he was trying to fill it with water. This was too dangerous! A moment later, the vase - and Binghe - tumbled into the pond.
Shen Yuan’s soul left his body.
It was not a very deep pond. But it was the Yellow River as far as Shen Yuan was concerned. “Binghe!” He ran barefoot over the rock and grass and slid into the pond. Standing, the water came to Shen Yuan’s chest, but Binghe was completely submerged. Why wasn’t his bun floating up? “Binghe!” He felt along the pond until he got a handful of Binghe’s wild hair and pulled him up. “Binghe! What are you doing?!”
“Shizun!” He threw his arms around Shen Yuan’s waist. “This Binghe was going to make you a fever cloth,” his lips trembled as he began to cry. “I tried to hold it. But...I lost your vase.”
“Binghe,” Shen Yuan held him very tight. What if he slipped out of his arms? “This Binghe is worth far more to this Shizun than a vase.” If Shen Jiu saw him at this moment, he would have put him in the woodshed (note: Shen Jiu had never actually put anyone in the woodshed, though it was his favorite threat).
Yingying did see them, shrieking, “Master Shen! Bingbing! Why are you in the pond?!”
Getting out of the pond was much harder than getting in it. Shen Yuan was able to hand Binghe to Yingying, but extricating himself was so humiliating that he would never speak of it again.
The next day found Shen Yuan and Binghe in bed, sick. They both had fevers and Binghe complained that his throat was scratchy. The Royal Physician was sent for, prescribing hot stones, sleep, and medicine.
“Is it the red stuff?” Shen Yuan asked, hopeful. The ‘red stuff’ was just red-colored honey.
“It’s the Royal Physician’s Elixir, Master Shen.” The Royal Physician’s Elixir was so vile that it was infamous amongst the Orchid Palace. Shen Yuan would rather die than take it. But he did not want to die, so he steeled himself. He had to be a good example.
“It’s…” cough, “Very...good.” Binghe, who was still tearily contrite about the vase, took it as his penance.
Shen Yuan woke up in the middle of the night, alarmed to not have a foot or elbow in his back. He turned to make sure Binghe was breathing… and found him sitting upright reading something. He was suspiciously quiet.
“Binghe, why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Binghe slept all day and isn’t tired.”
“You should try. Yingying,” ie Shen Yuan, “Will be very worried if you don’t get better.”
Binghe sighed. “Alright. But can I ask Shizun a question?”
“Of course,” Shen Yuan made space for his sticky bun under the blanket. At some point, he would...have to… give Binghe his own bed. But it was late and Binghe was small.
“Is it true that deer are men in disguise?”
Shen Yuan spit blood.
I have taken great liberties with dynastic practices. The first Emperor of China wasn't until the Qin Dynasty (see: Terracotta Warriors) about 800 years after the Shang. His death is a story in and of itself (see: Weekend at Bernie's).
True fact: The Shang (Yin) heralded in the use of bronze weaponry in China. It is very hard to fight with a bronze weapon. Though Eurocentric, see: Bronze Age Combat Project.
Chapter 4: Qinghua Enters Stage Left
Cart up the Mountain's life (in any incarnation) is never easy.
Shang Qinghua has delayed puberty due to hypogonadism. I've tried to be respectable about it, but please let me know if anything is not.
I also tried to find a feminine name for Qinghua that was fairly similar to the first character of Qinghua ('clear'). I'm familiar with Kanji, but am not super up on Hanzi. So please let me know if anything looks off.
Again, thank you for all your kind comments and continuing to read. This has been a nice break from the n95 life. (人´∀`)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
Regarding sex parity (again this is super loose dynastic cut and copy).
In 1976, the grave of Lady Hao, a Shang dynasty consort (around 1200 BCE), was discovered in Anyang. From the artifacts found within, it is believed that she was not only a consort, but also a general in her own right.
After her death, her husband continued to ask her for advice. Whether she offered it is unknown.
Chapter 5: Two Stories
A beginning and ending in the Orchid Palace.
Two Years Ago...
The invitation was followed by Fourth Consort Qiu and First Concubine Wu… and no less than forty concubines. This could go two ways. Either Shen Yuan was being blessed with some sort of Heavenly favor. Or he was going to be killed. It was 50/50.
Last year, Second Consort Hu - a great beauty and an exceptional archer - had suffered the same fate after her brother, Weiyong, was accused of treason. Whether he’d done anything or not, it didn’t matter. When Second Consort Daji (elevated after Hu’s choice of three-laugh death powder) said jump, the Emperor asked ‘how high?’ Palace rumor was that Consort Daji was a fox demon who had bewitched the Emperor.
Shen Yuan was only 40% convinced.
Yingying wrung her hands at the screen. “You’ve done nothing,” she consoled - or defended - as the convoy neared Shen Yuan’s rooms. For his part, Shen Yuan didn’t even flutter (externally) as he waited for his fate. His horoscope had read that it was going to be an eventful day. Hopefully not his last.
It was Second Consort’s favorite handmaid who entered. Whether Consort Daji was a fox demon or not, she had an enormous draw over the Emperor after joining his harem from Yousu. As such, her handmaidens were powerful, arrogant, and best kept at a distance. She was also hopelessly in love with Shen Yuan - though he had no idea. “Concubine Shen.”
“I have come to personally invite you to His Imperial Majesties’ Moon viewing party,” she handed over a golden tablet that would say much the same. Despite being personally invited, it was unlikely that anyone would notice he was there. Thousands of people would be in attendance. The Emperor and Consort Daji would be in their own open roofed pavilion - likely built for the occasion - unaware of anyone else.
“Please relay my thanks to Royal Consort Daji for her gift.”
Lady Su’s starry eyes went unnoticed as she made her way out.
Shen Yuan took a deep breath, composing himself and dismissing Yingying before Fourth Consort Qiu and First Concubine Wu bustled in. “I nearly had a heart-attack,” Madam Wu said. Shen Yuan could see the sparkle of her dagger in her sleeve. The Emperor had not seen any of his Consorts or Concubines in years. Shen Yuan had every belief that she would go out swinging.
She was a little scary.
“Shen Jiu would have burned down the Imperial City,” Madam Qiu added, with great certainty though she’d never met his brother. “I would like to see that from outside the City. Not within.”
They talked nonsense over tea, unobserved and (possible) treasonous discourse unremarked upon. It was a measure of how hated Consort Daji was - certain to shoot the messenger - that their words would go unheard.
Not one to linger overlong about potential death when he had a new novel by Mian Hua Su Liu, Shen Yuan squandered the time between invitation to attendance as he always did. Eating sweets, composing on the guqin, and trying to avoid being shat on by his courtyard doves. “This is not what I thought owning doves would be like at all,” he moaned to Yingying, who was frantically getting an outfit together for him grand enough to join the Emperor’s Moon Viewing party. “I’m thinking about something more...stationary.”
Yingying made a non-committal sound that Shen Yuan interpreted as interest.
“I’ve been taking notes,” he continued, hair still in his sleeping braid though it was after one. “Do you think sheep would be auspicious?” He paused, brush in hand. “I could have a painting done and show Shen Jiu my filial piety.”
“Stand up so I can check the fit, Master Shen,” Yingying said, not commenting on his one-sided conversation. Over his silk shirt and pants, he was now obliged to wear a stiff, embroidered over robe.
“This is untenable,” Shen Yuan groused.
In fact, it was a godsend, though the body heat of over three-thousand guests (re: hostages) did help. It was snowing! Shen Yuan was cold .
Thankfully, he was able to fortify himself with wine and bean filled cakes. So many bean cakes that he missed the man cutting through the crowd until a military official - by the dark blue garments - was standing over him scowling. “How dare you show your face!”
Shen Yuan had reached down for his fallen soldiers, the crushed remains of rare sweets brought tears to his eyes. This was too much! Who would be so cruel to take their ire out on these sweets so delicate that they melted in the snow?
Shen Yuan looked up.
“How dare you treat me like this!” Shen Yuan didn’t often get angry, but when he did he… looked like a kitten with its fur pet the wrong way. And then his anger punched out, “I was looking forward to those.”
The man in question started when Shen Yuan looked him directly in the eye. He was older, probably more Shen Jiu’s age than his own, and would have been very good-looking if it weren’t for the sourness of his face. “This one apologizes. I thought you were...someone else.”
“So you make it a habit of knocking over people you don’t like?” The man’s face was fluctuating between red and white. He had yet to break eye-contact.
“I don’t… dislike you.” He spit it out.
“Are you alright, Concubine Shen?” a voice at his elbow said. “This one couldn’t help but notice your mishap and worried about your wellbeing.” It was one of the Zhou representatives to the Imperial Court. Shen Yuan had never seen their tattoo up close and it was so ominous! His was a red phoenix feather. His servants’ were a line of black dots, differing by the man.
“This one thanks you for your concern,” Shen Yuan smiled and the man stumbled back a step. “Are you alright?”
“Oh yes,” he said, eyes over Shen Yuan’s shoulder and then back. “This Zhuzhi-Lang is very blessed to have made your acquaintance. Your robes are damp. Will you take this one’s coat?” Before he could get the clasp off, there was a solid weight on Shen Yuan’s shoulders.
“Concubine Shen will wear General Liu’s coat.” It was heavy, studded with defensive shellwork, and Shen Yuan thought he’d been beaten two inches into the ground.
Shen Yuan scowled and the man scowled back. Zhuzhi-Lang’s right eyebrow raised and Shen Yuan thought he might be laughing at General Liu. His own mouth fluttered slightly. “This one will replace your sweets,” he said, toeing the melted sweets. Shen Yuan mentally poured one out for his fallen soldiers.
“This one will replace Concubine Shen’s sweets.” General Liu, this was too much! This one already can’t move in your coat!
“It is no bother,” and Zhuzhi-Lang made a plate of sweets magically appear. He might be Shen Yuan’s favorite person. What a talent, Zhuzhi-Lang!
Unfortunately, the rest of the evening went on like that. Shen Yuan crumbling onto a blanket under the weight of General Liu’s coat. Zhuzhi-Lang, on his right, explaining the cycles of the moon while General Liu grunted on his left. “Can this one know more about your forehead marking?”
“This one will show you the Liu crest.”
It went on like this for hours. A volley between Liu Qigghe and Zhuzhi-Lang that made Shen Yuan’s head hurt. Thankfully, Shen Yuan and Madam Wu were well versed in the language of ‘get me the fuck out of here,’ and she came to collect Shen Yuan.
“It is very late. I must collect this one.” Shen Yuan had never wanted her to use her dagger more. Though he suspected it was coated in poison (read: it was).
He was so exasperated that he would agree to anything to get away.
Apparently he agreed that they could visit him?
The Bai Zhan War God had been four times and the Zhou official twice.
Madam Wu laughed for hours over his misfortune. Madam Qiu ominously noted, “Liu Qigghe is a remarkably handsome man.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” The gardener he shared with two other Concubine Level Fours had just delivered his ornamental deer and the three of them were having tea outside. It had already tried to eat Madam Qiu’s sleeve which was very bold of it. She was very fond of her robes.
Madam Wu added, “You know the saying, ‘there is no dull blade on Bai Zhan Peak’ [no one is ugly in Bai Zhan].”
It went right over Shen Yuan’s head.
What a true saying! He thought. Probably because they had to defend against their ill temper!
Somewhere else in the Orchid Palace, a young woman lay dying.
Su Xiyan was burning with fever, sweat wiped away by a washerwoman. Her young son, no more than 3, sat nearby thankfully unaware of her fate. There were no friends in the Orchid Palace, certainly none who would raise a threat to their own children. “Bing...he…” she said, touching the fluff of his tiny head. In these last hours, she had been going in and out of coherency. Musing on the court of her father, the young man she had hoped to marry. “Tianlang...Jun…” Time and again, the tattoo on her right inner thigh showed: a red phoenix feather. The washerwoman covered it time and again.
It was not proper for anyone to see the tattoo who was not one’s special person.
The washerwoman diligently cared for her though it would mean a beating for her absence. They shared a kinship by clan, if not by blood. Su Xiyan’s servant had already left her. She had not been permitted a Zhou.
“Be at peace, my Lady,” the washerwoman said, letting Lady Xiyan squeeze her hand.
Binghe’s skin rattle beat in time with her heartbeats.
Eventually, he put it down.
Not specific to the Shang Dynasty, but a little tale on poisons.
Silver poison testers are not fool-proof. Their efficacy was based on the crude production of early arsenic. Arsenic was often found next to sulfides that would react to silver. So chances were 50/50.
Poisons were a "gift death" preserving the honor of the soon to be deceased in lieu of more grisly methods. In the late Shang period, this included being cooked alive in the "Bronze Toaster," invented by (the very real) Consort Daji.
Also, perhaps something only I find amusing, the word for cinnabar (itself a poison) traces back to a proto-Ancient Chinese word for "red flag." So don't trip that flag, Shen Yuan!
Chapter 6: BingBing
Binghe wants a dog.
Thank you everyone for continuing to read and support this fic (*´∀｀)ﾉ.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They were at something of an impasse... though Shen Yuan was only holding out because he had his back to Binghe. Even Yingying was sniffling as she came in with Shen Yuan’s mid-afternoon snacks (not to be confused with mid-morning, post-lunch, late afternoon, early evening, post-dinner, and very late evening snacks).
He liked his snacks, ok?
Binghe paused his tears to take a candied orange peel. Shen Yuan knew the sound of fingernails on his snack bowl well.
Only last week he cautioned Binghe, “Never be afraid to use your talents. But do not show your hand until the moment is right.” This had been in relation to catching koi in the Concubine Level 6 communal pond. He had meant that he had to be careful about the shadow of his hand on the surface of the water.
Eyes serious and mouth tight, Binghe said, “I understand.”
Apparently, what he understood was that Shen Yuan had dispensed some deeply philosophical aphorism - a life lesson, if you will - and not advice for catching koi. Shen Yuan was the last person to have deeply philosophical thoughts, let alone dispense them. He couldn’t make it past the first slat of the Husbandman’s Guide to Sourdough without falling asleep.
Shen Yuan had not expected Binghe to turn his words against him. His bun was too sneaky!
“Is this really this important?!” Shen Yuan asked, risking a glance in the bronze mirror. Binghe was staring right at him.
“How can you say that, Shizun?!?” Those wet cheeks! The trembling lip! Shizun must be strong.
Shen Yuan couldn’t tell who was more pitiful. Binghe or himself.
Technically, Shen Yuan belonged to the Emperor (and thus the Empress).
As he was a political consort, he was safe from connubial scorecards, the poor coal portions of non-childbearing concubines, and following the Emperor to his next life (willingly or not).
He was basically an ambassador. On paper, he was one of the Emperor’s flowers. He liked to think of himself as a milk thistle (he was a rose) sheltered from the hardship of court life. In practice, he was one of the Emperor’s flowers sheltered from the hardship of court life. He was probably supposed to spy? Or to influence the empire if the Court started after 1? He would like to source an elephant, but had no ambitions for anything else.
Gossip he could handle...but things were too strange! He didn’t have to try.
Madam Qiu’s talk of her niece’s marriage dowry was too ominous! But who was she marrying? Shen Yuan worried about the state of Bai Zhan Peak after Liu-shibo tallied off his horses. Zhuzhi-Lang spoke of a ‘rock terrace hanging in white clouds / distant, a narrow path.’ Were these directions to a military stronghold? The Chu Princesses asked for help practicing guqin, even fighting for nights! But did the chosen songs have meaning?
Spying is too hard! So Shen Yuan and Binghe entertained Madam Wu in his Courtyard. It was a beautiful day, though Shen Yuan couldn’t attest to the first half of it. A thin carpet of straw covered the grass while it grew in. There was only one lonely camellia tree. The peach trees had gone with the pond. Madam Wu thought it was ‘romantic.’ Shen Yuan thought he could probably fit an elephant.
Binghe knelt at the low table, doing a (very) abstract painting of Shen Yuan’s tea cup. There were dozens of his sticky bun’s paintings in their rooms. For some reason, most of them featured ‘Shizun.’ Shen Yuan could not see it, but keep trying Binghe!
Stirring her snake breath powder in her tea, Madam Wu said, “I feel sorry for them.”
“You should, the Princesses are awful.” They had plucked so many wrong notes that Shen Yuan had had to move their arms!
“It is clear that your Special Person is BingBing.” Binghe looked up, a drop of ink ruining his attempt at ‘Shizun-koi’ - what monster is this? - and turned to look at him. As if waiting for an answer.
“Binghe is very special to me.” Shen Yuan agreed, unaware of how soft his eyes grew when Binghe was mentioned. Or what ‘special person’ meant in the Court language. Shen Yuan reached over to pat Binghe’s head. His fluff had started to grow out, for which Shen Yuan cried secret tears, and it was almost long enough to put up. Right now, it was braided to stay out of his eyes.
“Can we go to the Concubine Six pool, Shizun?”
“You should go to the Public Courtyard,” Madam Wu said, looking away. “I’ve heard it’s quite lovely this time of year and Bingbing’s never been.”
“Can we, Shizun?”
Liu-shibo’s: “Who is this?!” was the longest string of words he’d ever said at one time.
Binghe had run all around the Courtyard while Shen Yuan tried not to make eye-contact with his former ornamental deer. It was too hard to look at something he had betrayed! Even if they had a better life now. Shen Yuan had noticed Liu-shibo and it was too rude to not acknowledge him. Binghe, who had also noticed him, had started crying about being too tired to walk.
Unaware of the victory-sparkle of Binghe’s eyes versus Liu-shibo’s death glare, he said, “This is Binghe.”
“Shizun’s Binghe,” Binghe corrected, his arms sticky and warm around Shen Yuan’s neck.
Liu-shibo tensed, eyes going between Shen Yuan and Binghe. Anyone looking at Binghe could see that he was the Emperor’s son.
“Why do you have one?!”
What kind of question is that, Liu-shibo? “Because I am raising him.”
“But--” Liu-shibo arms reached out and then fell to his sides. “Why didn’t you wait?” He sounded very aggrieved. “Why didn’t you just get a dog?! I could have given you a dog!”
Shen Yuan was alarmed that Liu-shibo equated his bun with a dog. He shifted Binghe’s floppy limbs into something not quite comfortable but bearable before he tried to explain. “Liu-shibo--”
“Qingge,” he bit out. What is this Liu-shibo! Have you suffered a Qi deviation?
“Er...” Shen Yuan conveniently glossed over the odd request. “I… children and dogs aren’t the same thing at all.”
“That’s why you should have gotten a dog,” Liu-shibo’s face said he was working through something important. “You can’t have the Emperor’s child.”
“I...know?” This was just too odd. 3 o’clock in the afternoon was too early for explaining biology to the War God of Bai Zhan Peak. Shen Yuan looked, pleadingly, at one of the servants. “Would you like some tea?”
“Shizun! Can we have a dog?”
Binghe would not stop talking about the dog.
He had a name for it. A secret name. Shen Yuan desperately hoped it wasn’t Yuyu.
Binghe used the time he should have spent on calligraphy creating a schematic of how Shen Yuan’s rooms would be reorganized for a dog. He had a feeding schedule. He had a visiting schedule whereby he would take the dog to visit his favorite concubines and random child #457 (Ning), who pretty much went along with everything Binghe wanted.
One day, Shen Yuan woke from a nap (after reading the first draft of Cart up the Mountain’s The Sharp Blade Cuts the Sleeve) to find an actual dog in his room. He had mistaken it for a mop, but it had legs and peed on the carpet. He didn’t think he was that scary, but he’d never been faced with an unexpected dog before. You can’t just prepare for these situations. “Binghe.”
And this was how they’d ended up at this impasse.
“Rules are not suggestions, Binghe,” Shen Yuan said, his back still facing the boy in question. Shen Yuan was a weak man. Especially when Binghe’s face was dirty with tear tracks. How did he get so dirty playing inside?
“But...but…are you going to make Binghe abandon Bingbing?!”
Fatal error. Shen Yuan turned around and made direct eye-contact with his sobbing bun. “You named the dog after yourself?”
Binghe nodded. There was candied orange sugar at the edge of his mouth.
“But why did you name the dog after yourself?”
Binghe looked up, eyes so large and earnest and wet. He was a really pitiful child. “So that Shizun will always have Binghe with him.”
Critical hit. Was there... moisture pooling at the corner of his eyes? What did that mean? Was he dying? Could you die from feelings?
“Okay,” Shen Yuan said, checking his meridians at the same time to figure out if he was dying. “You can keep Bingbing.”
Six months later
“Shizun! Shizun! Shizun!” Shen Yuan looked up from his book, the revised edition of The Sharp Blade Cuts the Sleeve . No one on the peak is ugly? How impossible, Cart! Bingbing was a flat pile of fluff on his lap. “Pay attention to Binghe!?!”
Binghe was scowling at Bingbing.
“Don’t you still owe me a poem?” The tiny bell on Bingbing’s custom collar chimed as Shen Yuan let him lick the salt off his fingers. The Court Painter was going to come early next week to do a likeness of the dog.
“But when will Binghe ever have to write poetry?!”
“You never know.” Shen Yuan kept looking at Binghe, who was alternating between smug and exasperated. The way he was when he got what he wanted...just not the way he wanted it. It was probably mean to enjoy this. But Shen Yuan had been raised by Shen Jiu. He sighed. “Let’s split the difference. If you calculated the sums I assigned yesterday correctly , we can write a poem together.”
A beat as Binghe calculated his odds. “And I can sit on your lap?”
“And Binghe can feed you tanghulu?”
“How are you going to hold the brush and feed me at the same time?” Binghe’s mouth pursed, the way it did when he was gearing up for a challenge.
“Binghe can do it. Also,” Binghe had the sums already in hand, the cheeky little bun, “You have to kiss Binghe on the forehead and tell this one that Binghe is Shizun's sticky little bun.” Shen Yuan had said it one time. One time.
Bingbing put his little paw on Shen Yuan’s sleeve.
How had he done this to himself?
Random Shang fact interrupted to announce that there is a Late-Shang/Early-Zhou dynasty drama in the works: Zhaoge.
This one has the Gods though and probably skipping the Human Toaster (tm)?
Chapter 7: Ancestors
Things are discovered and things are lost.
Again, thank you so much for continuing to read this :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was a truth not really acknowledged, that Shen Yuan was good at something more than sleeping.
Don’t get him wrong. He was very good at sleeping.
His guqin skills were on point. He was fluent in the language of fans to the point that he told jokes to his fellow inmates at the Orchid Palace. He was very good at obfuscating the truth and… might have some martial skills. Though he waved them off as ‘nothing to speak of.’
Shen Yuan had also become talented in saying things that everyone thought were deeply introspective. Binghe wrote them down in a little book he called The Words of Shizun. Shen Yuan said, ‘Go tidy your things,’ (yes, he was a hypocrite) and Binghe dutifully wrote ‘cleanliness is important for a good life.’
Probably? Shen Yuan looked around at the hundreds of bottles of ‘how to get quick’ potions that made the rounds. One promoting exercise without exercising. A jar of something that was supposed to ‘clear the vapours,’ after he’d fallen asleep four times during Consort #3’s rhinoceros story. Lotus-flavored rice wafers for the nervous disposition, used when he received a letter from Shen Jiu. And something called Chrysanthemum-Ease that Shen Yuan could empirically say did not work on Chrysanthemums. He was fairly certain he had killed the bush in Madam Ji’s (Concubine Level 5) shared courtyard. Though he passed it off as a rare sort of slippery fungus.
Because he had Cart up the Mountain by the balls (literally), he corroborated the commonness of the plant ailment and found some unnamed ‘powder’ to combat it. He even had the temerity to laugh at Shen Yuan!
Binghe had written, ‘always know the effect gifted potions have before using for a good life.’
“How old are you now?” Shen Yuan asked his Binghe one day.
“It sounds like you just picked a random number,” Shen Yuan said, sitting under the pavilion he’d had built in the Courtyard. He kept scanning the rooftop, hoping to catch sight of the monkey...and maybe his yellow silk pants? He’d come out last week to find them both missing. Apparently monkeys were not content with the fruit Shen Yuan brought them. Live and learn, right?
“Eight?” Binghe was counting his fingers as if they did more than sponge up ink.
“Really?” Had he had his sticky bun for three to five years? Shen Jiu wrote every month...so 24, no 36 letters. So, yes, three years. So he found Binghe when he was...almost 18? “I don’t even know who you are.”
“Shizun!!” Binghe’s eyes waterfalled with tears. “How can you not know your Binghe?!” He threw himself into Shen Yuan’s lap and cried into his light purple outer robe.
“Shhh. Of course I know my bu-- Binghe.” He almost said the b-word and decided to just go forward. Even if his sticky bun was smiling into his neck. This child. “But do you ever wonder who your mother was?”
“Shizun is my only family.”
Oh little bun! Could you die from having feelings? Was he dying now? Shen Yuan had no idea what to say to that, so he just patted Binghe on the head. “Have I ever told you about my mother?” Binghe shook his head. “My mother was my father’s Third Wife. She was from Xian Zhu Peak - which is one of the Cang Qiong Sects - and very sweet natured as Shen Jiu told me. She died giving birth and I was born eight months after my father died.”
“Binghe is sorry, Shizun!” Then don’t strangle me, Binghe! “You are an orphan like me!”
“You are only an orphan if you have no family. I have Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan. I have Binghe and I have Bingbing.”
“Binghe is Shizun’s family?!” Fresh tears and more throat crushing. Love hurts, Binghe! “Bingbing does not love you like I love you.” So possessive!
“There is no contest, Binghe.” His mulish look said he was going to argue the point.
So Shen Yuan changed the topic to poetry and a scowling Binghe took the hint.
That night, Binghe wrote, ‘Shizun is important for a good life.’
After the obligatory yearly worship at the Shang Ancestral shrine, Shen Yuan always stopped at the Seer to have his fortune read. It was a palate cleanser for the ritual sacrifices that went along with placating not only one’s ancestors, but Shangdi. The Shen plaque was still in Qing Jing (where the matriarchal line was highly venerated), though Shen Yuan worshipped from afar.
After finding Binghe, Shen Yuan always brought him - they were his ancestors - and this year Shen Yuan asked, “Would you like your fortune read?”
Binghe’s eyes were stars. “Can I, Shizun?”
“Of course.” There were many Seers, but Shen Yuan was partial to Madam Meiyin. Through her, the gods had told him he would find good fortune in love. Since he was now the sole distributor of papapa novels at the Orchid Palace (and beyond), he counted it as a success.
One’s reading was deeply personal. Shen Yuan waited at the side while Binghe consulted Madam Meiyin, who wrote sacred characters on the tortoise bone and then heated it with burning rods. Whatever his outcome, BInghe was very pleased. He’d even conned part of the shell off her and kept it in his sleeve.
As for Shen Yuan’s fortune, it appeared that he would meet someone very unexpected and change the trajectory of his life. He had every hope that this would be the merchant who was ‘looking into’ getting him an elephant. He had never seen one, but they sounded very exciting.
Afterward, a sleepy Binghe asked, “Shizun. Do you think we could find out who my mother was?”
His little filial bun! “Of course, Binghe.”
Binghe wrote, ‘Stay the course for a good life.’
Because the Palace Physician was too judgy, Shen Yuan had started taking walks around the Orchid Palace for his health. He almost always got lost, but with Binghe and Bingbing wagging their tails alongside, he always made it home.
This time, he suggested that they try to find the room Binghe was living in three years ago to look for clues. “We had to burn the robe you were in. But maybe there is something else there?”
Shen Yuan was frankly shocked at the state of many of the lesser concubine rooms. Because he was a Concubine Level Four, he (but mostly Binghe and Bingbing) ended up drinking no less than forty cups of tea and had their sleeves packed with treats. Binghe had to make water no less than forty times and Shen Yuan thought that everyone needed more coal.
All of the Orchid Palace ‘flowers’ were too proud. But maybe he would have Yingying clean his robes (he had hundreds) and see if someone would ‘take them off his hands.’
Binghe wrote in his book, ‘Drinking forty cups of tea is sometimes necessary for a good life.’
Eventually, they did find the room Binghe had been living in. It was still in the most remote, most labyrinthine hallway of the Palace. “It’s a wonder you didn’t freeze down here.”
“Please forgive me, Shizun. But Binghe did steal coal.”
“Shizun would never be angry at anything Binghe had to do to survive.” This heartened Binghe up and Shen Yuan let Binghe and Bingbing root around the room. There was no brazier, but the bed platforms were raised to be heated from beneath. Anything of value had been redistributed long ago. Had Binghe’s mother been happy here with her Binghe? Shen Yuan had feelings about a young woman whose life had been ‘redistributed,’ leaving nothing behind.
Except for his sticky bun. Was it dusty in here? He checked to see if his meridians had gone out of alignment.
To Binghe’s chagrin, Bingbing found something. They had a love-hate relationship even if it was Binghe who wanted the dog. Binghe complained. Shen Yuan doted on Bingbing to compensate for the lack of attention. In turn, Binghe complained more. It was too strange!
“What is it?”
It was a box - a much maligned bronze box - with a few odds and ends. A bone hair pin with a feathered filial. A small sliver of wood with some writing on it that Shen Yuan could not decipher. A hard, smooth, yellowish-white carving in bone. Shen Yuan had never felt anything like it. “Does any of this look familiar to you, Binghe?”
“No, Shizun.” He peered down at the items. “Can you read the characters? Binghe knows that Shizun can read anything.” If Shen Yuan spent two months trying to figure out what it said, that was between himself and Cart up the Mountain. Shang Qinghua knew a lot of strange things and if he didn’t know something, he knew how to find someone who did. All under the table. He was wasted as a gardener. But who else would find him such wonderful animals?
“We can add this to your treasures box.” When he was younger - oh, that fluffy sticky bun - Binghe collected all sorts of ‘treasures.’ He gave them to Shizun and they would select the best to put in a treasure box. Binghe had a very good eye for finding things of value, and some of the items in his box were quite valuable.
Shen Yuan gave him a jade guanyin pendant some months ago because he so admired Madam Yui’s (Concubine Level 6). Shen Yuan had to force him to put it in the box instead of wearing it everywhere after the Lost Guanyin Incident where Binghe sobbed for five hours after he was convinced he’d lost it. Madams Wu and Qin, as well as six Concubine Level 6s (Binghe really liked the koi pond) had torn up not only Shen Yuan’s room but most of the Orchid Palace to find it.
“Binghe thinks he’s seen Shizun’s monkey!” Binghe said two weeks later, Shen Yuan reading a letter of inquiry as to the differences in Capitol script to those of the neighboring vassal states.
“Yes!” Binghe’s cheeks were pink and Shen Yuan sighed at the fact that he would always run down the halls. “It had a pair of yellow pants in its hands while Master Shang chased after it.”
Shen Yuan took a sip of tea.
So, I caught the episode of Lazlo Montgomery's History of China podcast about the early days of the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (many many centuries after the Shang).
The trading network was phenomenal. At one point, 10% of Han China's GDP was based on trade on the Silk Road. In 36 BCE, Han troops actually fought Roman soldiers under the direction of Marc Anthony (of Cleopatra fame) during the Battle of Sogdiana. The Han troops won because they had crossbows.
Around the time Shen Yuan was looking for an elephant, Achilles had set out to Troy with the rest of Homer's crew of marauding Greeks.
Unfortunately for Shen Yuan, he's probably not going to get an elephant... or will he?
The Oracle bones record that an extinct subspecies of the African forest elephant still existed during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, having reached Eurasia during the Pleistocene.
It is unlikely that poor abused Shang Qinghua will be able to fit an elephant into Shen Yuan's courtyard.
Chapter 8: Qinghua and Mobei lay at Moson Ger
Shang Qinghua's 'little brother' is the true hero.
Eventually - after Qinghua held the Chrysanthemum is Open and Pluckable hostage - Consort Shen put in a good word with one of his thousands of admirers and he was laterally promoted to a Court position. The exams for Eunuch Level 11 were in a few weeks and Qinghua had already polished the jar with his (someone’s) pickled bao.
He did not miss the humor in that.
Thanks to the revenues from the papapa trade, he was able to add some luxuries into his life. He commissioned a new robe and hat, scoped out his competitors - who was Mian Hua Su Liu? - and bribed one of the servants to add a sliver of pork to his mostly vegetarian meals. He could have done more, but a Eunuch Level 12 suddenly walking around with bling was very suspicious. He squirreled away the rest (in silver ingots) somewhere outside of the Palace. ....As if he was going to tell you where.
His Master was very old and particular in his ways. Qinghua was able to use that to his advantage when he adulterated his congee with fish bones. Very large, he didn’t want to kill the man (and he was nearly blind). First disciple was out and Qinghua was upgraded.
Unfortunately, his Master had had some sort of disagreement with an advisor to the Emperor’s Eunuch. The Emperor himself spent most of his days floating around the Lake of Wine or torturing people to amuse Consort Daji. Qinghua had yet to see the Lake of Wine, but he had made mention of it in a draft he was working on.
Because of...unpleasantness...in the Northeast and the breakdown of communication, Qinghua’s Master had been asked to travel to the furthermost Northern Outpost of the Empire. This was, essentially, a death sentence. Which meant it was a death sentence for Qinghua. Oh, Consort Shen, your favors are barbed!
He made a note: barbed pillar?
Before he set out, he visited Consort Shen to deliver goods and receive them. “Well, it’s a promotion, right?” Consort Shen offered as Qinghua relayed his misfortune. For all his dissolute ways, Consort Shen was really a soft touch and would listen to someone talk on for hours and offer ‘is that so?’ and ‘how interesting.’ The Bing-crew on the other hand were less friendly. Bingbing judged him with narrowed dog eyes. Like he was doing now.
“Here.” Consort Shen moved like a placid stream, graceful and languid. He pulled out a box from a cabinet and handed it over. “It’s very cold in the North, so this may be useful.”
It was a lap robe made of fox fur. “Wow.”
“Think of it as a business investment.” The moment of concern in Consort Shen’s eyes gave him away. Most people thought Consort Shen was untouched by everything around him, that he would serenely be clawed by a tiger and still not react. 100% not true. In fact, he had a myriad of micro expressions if you knew when to look.
Also, If anyone touched a hair on Luo Binghe’s head, Consort Shen would probably rain hellfire on the earth that not even Shangdi could manage.
He could be a very scary person.
At the end of the, frankly, unpleasant journey the caravan found that the Northernmost Outpost had not responded because it...didn’t exist.
Not good at all.
It appeared that the minor Di clans had been absorbed into the greater Mobei Clan. Which was - surprise! - now a Kingdom. A kingdom with a very large army and a very strong King: the Mobei-jun.
To the surprise of everyone (except Qinghua), the entire diplomatic party was slaughtered.
To the surprise of Qinghua, they kept him alive. The only person willing to pull down his pants to show Mobei-jun that he wasn’t a threat (read: ‘would a Royal Eunuch have working parts?’). “
“Xan’s nine cows, but one hair?” The phrase ended on a rise, so apparently it was a question of some sort. The Mobei-jun looked very pleased.
The Mobei-jun was simultaneously the most attractive (note: those blue eyes!) and the most terrifying person Qinghua had met in his life. Particularly when he was staring at Qinghua’s very frightened ‘little brother’ doing its best to hide itself in the safety of his body.
A heated discussion followed - much of it revolving around Qinghua’s unclad dick - and eventually a Shaman (or something?) showed up and spent altogether too much time studying his nethers (even the back part!).
It was fortunate, then, that Qinghua had no shame.
Finally, his fate decided, he spent the next month sitting next to the Mobei-jun on his platform while the King glared, occasionally decapitated people, and gave Qinghua animal (hopefully?) entrails. The last given with, “Shar, his arms wide open.” Thankfully the Shaman, who was called Sinta and spoke a little Yellow River dialect (having been kidnapped as a child), stopped him from wearing the entrails and showing him how to cook them. They were surprisingly good.
The Mobei language was based on allegory rather than a formalized series of characters. So a shared history was important to “get” the language. So “Shar, his arms wide open,” referenced a time when Shar - some sort of a wandering warrior - had been given the gift of a home. Thus “Shar, his arms wide open,” meant a gift. Qinghua had begun to scratch out notes using animal skin vellum and a charcoal stick.
Sinta often said to Qinghua, ‘Rada looks in the bush,’ and motioning to Qinghua’s ‘little brother.’ He was not well endowed, but way to get a complex.
Their kingdom was large and dominated by peg and skin compounds heated with stone braziers. The Mobei had bronze swords or polearms and even a small, sort of hairy horse.
Over time, Qinghua was able to explain (through pantomime and frustration) that he had to leave. The Mobei-jun went ballistic - ‘Tar and Gam lay at Moson Ger’ - and Qinghua hid before he was murdered. Running away was not really an option. The Mobei kept wolves and while Consort Shen would salivate over them, Qinghua was certain they were responsible for his gift of entrails.
Through the intervention of Sinta, Qinghua was able to make the Mobei-jun understand. “Ah. Kailash when it rises. Understand?”
Qinghua had no idea what he meant. But he said, “Yes.”
“Erdene speaks with birds. Qinghua dances with Mobei. Understand?”
“Qinghua dances with Mobei. Erdene speaks with birds.” He was maybe a double agent? Spying for the Zhou and now the Mobei-jun. The Mobei-jun was looking at his ‘little brother’ (clothed) with intent.
‘Little brother,’ you are the true hero!
Qinghua had no idea how he was going to get a supply line able to carry coded letters out to the Northeastern steppes. But Erdene had to speak with birds.
Tar and Gam lay at Moson Ger. At least he was still alive, right?
Because Qinghua was the only person to return - and with first hand ‘limited knowledge’ of the Mobei - he got an upgrade to Eunuch Level 10 replacing his Master at Court. He could now have one servant and a spot in the third row of the Court scribes.
He became the foremost scholar of the Mobei language. But that honor was kept, like his ‘little brother,’ under wraps (‘Qinghua in the vaults, footsteps nearing’). He used just enough to help with diplomatic missives...that went nowhere.
Or so he thought.
Qinghua returned to his quarters, thankfully no longer shared, weary to the bone. He had hundreds of lines of notes to transcribe and owed Consort Shen a couple of chapters.
His servant, who was primarily to do anything not involving bathing or dressing, had forgotten to keep the lamps on. Qinghua knocked into the table, dropping scrolls everywhere, before he crawled on the floor for the lamp. Once lit, he fell back on his haunches, grabbing the scattered paperwork. He had ink on his new robe. Damnit.
Qinghua started badly. There was someone on his bed. Was this how he went out? Not with a bang, but a definite whimper. The Mobei-jun! How the hell did a 6’5” Northern King get into a Eunuch Level 10’s sleeping quarters...without being seen? There were people everywhere!
There was blood everywhere! Had he killed someone? Qinghua had worked SO HARD for Eunuch Level 10! “My rug!” was all that squeaked out. The secondhand rug he’d purchased was soaked through. Topped by some sort of dead lizard? A dragon?
“Qinghua,” he said again. The King looked incredibly pleased with himself. Qinghua’s rug! “Clouds and rain of Chang’an, dream under canopy.”
Quingha was so incredibly fucked.
But not that night, Readers.
So, if you’ve ever seen the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra Star Trek: TNG episode, this is what I modeled the Mobei language after. Shang Qinghua is always saying ‘yes’ when Mobei-jun asks if he understands.
Qinghua never understands. This time because he doesn’t know their language.
The Mobei, much like the Greeks, equate a ‘little brother’ with the pinnacle of male beauty. Aristophanes once defined the perfect male as having “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick.” 3/6 isn’t too bad.
Essentially, Qinghua’s arrival is a strong portent that the Mobei-jun is blessed by the gods.
Incidentally, a jarred bao (basically a pickled dick) was absolutely necessary when taking the Eunuch exams. You definitely wanted to say ‘yes’ when the ‘executioner’ asked if you wanted to keep it. Otherwise, it might end up on the black market.
I edited Mobei’s final phrase because the actual place referenced wasn’t far enough north.
Chapter 9: Housekeeping
Rare quiet moments with Shizun and his Binghe.
'Concubine Shen' is now 'Consort Shen' because I keep typing the wrong thing and like the sound of 'Consort' over 'Concubine.' Going back to edit.
Thank you everyone for continuing to read :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Did you hear,” one of the vetted water bearers said, hauling water in for Yingying, “That someone tried to kill Master Shang.”
“That’s awful,” Yingying clucked. “But you mustn’t say those things where Consort Shen can hear….” The aforementioned Consort pretended he wasn’t listening, while they arranged his bath. “He has a delicate constitution and Master Shang was our gardener.”
This particular non-Eunuch water bearer, Ming Fan, had been lobbying hard to get Yingying’s attention. She was too oblivious! He seemed a decent person and always had the best gossip, but there was no way he was going to make off with Shen Yuan’s Yingying without a fight. Who else would dress him? Who knew how to braid and pin up his hair! Sorry, Ming Fan, but Yingying is coming back to Qing Jing when Shen Yuan is widowed/not widowed! (His particular status was, well, particular).
As Ming Fan turned to more leading questions, Shen Yuan came in from the Courtyard. Ming Fan fell into a deep bow, “Master Shen.”
“That will be all, Ming Fan,” Shen Yuan dismissed him. The boy seemed to glow as he left, something Shen Yuan noticed most servants addressed by their names did. “Where is Binghe?” Bingbing, who lived in mortal terror of baths, was hiding under the silk robe he’d filched from Shen Yuan and routinely slept on. Shen Yuan let him believe he had successfully hidden himself.
Like all of the Orchid Palace, Shen Yuan bathed every five days using a bowl of hot water for daily wash up. Every three days, he washed his hair. If his was a trial, Binghe’s was an execution. It was thick, frizzy, and ended in curls. Fine combs were lost for all time. With a wider bristled comb, it still took hours to untangle it. For the sake of their wrists, Shen Yuan and Yingying tag teamed. Shen Yuan could have brought in additional Palace servants, but hair washing was a deeply personal thing he shared with only two people. Someday, someone else would be combing Binghe’s hair but… that would be over Shen Yuan’s dead body. So a thought for another day.
Yingying continued gathering the tools of the ordeal. Because Shen Yuan was an acknowledged hedonist, hair washing day was actually ‘bathing, hair-washing, drying and comb-out, light meal, and guqin’ day. Sort of a minor holiday. He was very modest, so Shen Yuan and Binghe bathed with a screen between them.
Yingying had brought out combs, top and bottom towels, post-washing oils, clean robes, and a prepared meal of cold dishes and sweets.
“Shizun!” The door rattled as it only did for Binghe, who was hard on the things Shen Yuan owned. Falling to his knees, he prostrated in front of Shen Yuan. “Binghe is sorry to be late.”
“Please get up,” Shen Yuan tried to discreetly wipe the rice powder from his fingers. It was very difficult to abstain from the meal until after. Especially when the soft, doughy buns lay so temptingly on the table. It was a good thing he used the Palace Physician’s mouth rinse, or his teeth would have rotted out long before now. “How does Binghe get so dirty?”
Binghe was shameless, only grinning while Shen Yuan fussed. He already had his belt off, a tsunami of clothes flying everywhere. “Pick that up. Binghe shouldn’t make more work for others.” Binghe apologized while gathering up his underthings to lay out for washing. Shen Yuan caught Yingying giving him a soothing smile. Binghe is too spoiled! How did this happen?
Shen Yuan’s bath - topped with waterlogged berries and twigs and...dirt? - looked like someone had left the courtyard door open. “Yingying, what is in my bathwater?” His horrified tone worked like a siren call on Binghe. He came in, took one look at Shen Yuan’s chest, turned furiously red, mumbled “Binghe apologies, Shizun,” and then ran back to his side of the screen. There was a loud plunk as his sticky bun catapulted into his own bath. He was too strange!
“A mixture from the Physician, Master Shen,” Yingying said, not batting at eye at his tone, Binghe’s strangeness, or the fact that Shen Yuan’s bath had been sabotaged. “Master Physician prescribed it to delay the effects of aging.”
To delay...aging?! He was the youngest person in the Orchid Palace not sprung from the Emperor’s loins! “Well…” he managed, looking into his bronze mirror and closely observed his face. Eyes, nose, and mouth were the same as always. Unremarkable and serviceable. Leaning closer, he carefully observed every follicle of his very unwrinkled face. This was just… too much.
Shen Yuan slid into the forest bath gracefully, careful of the hot stones that kept the water warm and the threat of getting a twig up his back parts. The silty rice water swirled around him as he settled on a groan. He flicked a berry away with his forefinger.
Bathing - warm water bathing - was one of the few ‘luxuries’ Shen Jiu had wholeheartedly supported as necessary for good health. Qing Jing had the benefit of a hot water spring and it was used well and often. When Shen Yuan was younger, he would chase after monkeys in the snow while Shen Jiu told him to settle and Yue Qingyuan laughed.
‘Shen Yuan, come,’ Shen Jiu said, tone final, as Shen Yuan had a leg over a low-hanging branch and a hand pricked with pine needles. Extrication was not easy. ‘If you fall, you will run ten laps around Qing Jing.’ Shen Yuan’s landing was less than graceful. He took a face full of snow from the monkey he’d been chasing and bit his tongue.
‘Ow.’ He pressed a hand to his mouth and came away with blood. Shen Yuan was fully aware that Shen Jiu was watching every move he made. It was impossible to hide anything from him.
‘Are you bleeding?’ The water churned as Shen Jiu sat up, paused, and then sat back. ‘Qingyuan, see what has happened.’ As Qi-ge was already coming towards him, Shen Yuan looked up at the Duke of Cang Qiong. Now a wet man with roughly combed up hair, wet pants, and soft eyes. Though his sword was always within arm’s reach.
‘What happened, a-Yuan?’
‘I bit my tongue,’ he tried to say.
‘Let me see.’ Qi-ge took a knee as Shen Yuan stuck out his tongue. Over Qi-ge’s shoulder, Shen Jiu was looking, very pointedly, away. ‘This? It’s a small thing. Just put your tongue in the water and it’ll heal right up.’
Qi-ge knew Shen Yuan would put his tongue in the water. She Jiu knew he would put his tongue in the water. The small troop of Qing Jing guards knew he would put his tongue in the water. Shen Yuan nodded, a drop of blood at the corner of his mouth. Qi-ge wiped it off. ‘You are too troublesome,’ Shen Jiu said as Qi-ge walked them back.
‘That’s impossible,’ Qi-ge said, tossing a startled Shen Yuan into the hot spring. ‘Shen Jiu is the most troublesome creature in the world." The context, the softness went over Shen Yuan's head. 'Let him enjoy it,’ Qi-ge soothed (as he always did), ‘Do you remember when you used to chase monkeys?’
‘I never did such childish things.’
At the time, Shen Yuan would settle back in the hot spring, chastened and small.
In hindsight, perhaps Shen Jiu had been more wistful than censuring. Shen Yuan knew precious little of his brother’s childhood. At fifteen he was Warlord Shen, their father having never recovered from a battle injury. His brother was already an adult when Shen Yuan was born. Qi-ge had had to pull Cang Qiong from decades of mismanagement and Shen Jiu had had to deal, like their father and grandfather had, with the Western barbarians.
Was Shen Jiu happy away from Qi-ge for most of the year? Was he happy that troublesome Shen Yuan was so far away?
There was something wet on his cheek. Was the steam so strong? Shen Yuan wiped his face with a finger and finally heard Binghe’s “Shizun! Are you listening to your Binghe?”
“This one apologizes, Binghe,” Shen Yuan said, smiling easily with the screen between them. “Shizun must have fallen asleep.”
“Can Binghe comb Shizun’s hair?”
Yingying fiddled with the combs, pretending like she wasn’t stalling for Shen Yuan to say yes. They’d already done their best to tame Binghe’s fluff. It needed so much oil that Binghe would smell like jasmine for days.
They looked at each other, Shen Yuan and his Binghe. It was quite possible that all the stars in the sky were reflected in Binghe’s eyes. Perhaps it was the aftereffects of his memories (read: his inability to say no to anything), but he said, “Binghe may.” Though he immediately looked at the fine bristled brush with trepidation.
Shen Yuan lit a candle for his head.
“Master Binghe has to hold here when brushing through the tangles,” Yingying advised while Shen Yuan tried not to cry (or die through a hair-pulling Qi deviation). Thankfully, he took direction well and Shen Yuan ended up with hair after the ordeal. Pleased with himself, Binghe brought over the bronze mirror.
“What does Shizun think?” Bingbing emerged just in time for food. Where have you been when Binghe wanted to brush hair?! So ungrateful!
Head throbbing and braid lumpy, Shen Yuan managed, “Binghe has done well.”
“Then this Binghe will always brush Shizun’s hair!”
Guqin lessons for Binghe inevitably turned into one-man concerts as Shen Yuan played and Binghe watched him.
It was finally dark, the plates long cleared from the table and Binghe had begged, “Shizun! Will you play for your Binghe?”
“Binghe is trying to get out of practice.”
“Binghe would never!” This shameless bun! “Binghe likes to hear Shizun play. Binghe loves his Shizun.” He said that easily and often, sometimes winding his arms around Shen Yuan’s waist and sometimes crying after… well, for any number of reasons.
“Alright,” he conceded, Binghe already having made a nest of blankets close to the brazier where it was warmest. He was playing with Shen Yuan’s favorite lamp, decorated with painted dragonflies, turning it to make them fly against the screens used to keep in the heat. Shen Yuan had perfect pitch and tuned it by ear. “Let me ask,” Shen Yuan said, fingers trailing over the strings.
“How many songs
are carried in Binghe’s heart?
The faint notes come and go
Like frost after sunrise.”
Binghe opened his mouth, still falling for practice without seeming to practice. (Binghe did, in fact, know he was being fooled into practicing. But as his Shizun enjoyed it, he played along).
"Binghe loves Shizun
Shizun does not believe Binghe
But we are two koi
In the Concubine Level 6 courtyard."
Binghe had been composing love poems for the past six months now. Shen Yuan traced it back to a reading Madam Qiu had organized by a Eunuch-poet from the Chu Court. Binghe had been suspiciously quiet and took a great deal of notes. It was a lot of ‘Binghe loves Shizun’ and ‘Shizun is more beautiful than a peach.’ It was too cute! He believed that one day Binghe would woo someone with poetry. If he compared them to something more than a...peach. It was said that ‘The qin and se in a husband’s hands; Will emit their quiet pleasant tones.’
Shen Yuan pushed his sleeves aside and began to play. A water song. Of snow that sat for generations on the mountain until it heard the faraway sound of the ocean. It softened under the sun, stopped to play with koi, and traveled to the ocean to meet the sea.
Though he would never say it, Shen Yuan loved that Binghe still found joy in the Concubine Level 6 koi pond. On his birthday, Binghe had given him the white jade koi hairpin he was wearing now. Shen Yuan did not want to know how he obtained it.
“Will Shizun wait for me?” Binghe said when Shen Yuan thought he had fallen asleep.
“Always,” Shen Yuan promised.
‘Shizun must always play guqin for Binghe for a good life.’
"The qin and se in your [the husband's] hands; Will emit their quiet pleasant tones..." [ 「琴瑟在御， 莫不靜好.《女曰雞鳴》 82] is from the Book of Songs. I suspect this has a double meaning (I can't read Chinese), but not 100% sure. I still continue to mourn the fact that since I read SVSSS in English, I missed most of the dick jokes.
I envisioned Shen Yuan's bathtub as Yan Nantian's from Handsome Siblings. As Shen Yuan is 22 or thereabouts in this chapter, I believe he was being trolled by his 'sisters.'
From the study of balneology [yes, there is a science of studying bathing]:
The oracle bones mention that there was already a (possibly ritualistic) bathing culture in the Shang Dynasty.
Han Dynasty officials were given a holiday every five days to return home for a bath (or just visiting). Anecdote from Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian: "In the time of Emperor Ching, Cheng Tang-shih was made a retainer in the household of the heir apparent. Every five days, when his bath and hair washing day came around, he would order post horses to be held in readiness for him in the suburbs of Ch’ang-an so that he could ride about and visit his friends, or else he would invite guests to his home and entertain them right through the night until dawn, his constant fear being that he would not get around to chatting with them all."
Sima Qian's word is solid. When the oracle bones were found, it was discovered that his (much later) history of Shang rulers was 100% spot on. Not bad for 1500 years after the fact.
Chapter 10: Low Wall by the River
Administrative business between an author and his patron.
I have like...10% confidence that I was able to make pseudonyms from the characters of Shen Yuan, Liu Qingge, and Gongyi Xiao's names.
As always, please let me know if I made any mistakes, butchered language, or can do better.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shen Yuan woke up when Binghe hit someone in the head with his pillow. Those things were no joke. It didn’t even crack. “Don’t worry, Shizun!” His lanky bun said, all fluff and sleeping robes. “Binghe has this.”
Bingbing, faithful guard dog, continued to snore in his silk blanket.
Shen Yuan sat up and saw that Binghe had knocked the intruder unconscious. It was Shang QInghua, dressed as an assassin?, who was going to have a spectacular black eye when (if) he woke up. Binghe had put on about twenty pounds of sweet-fueled muscle in the last year, now coming up to Shen Yuan’s shoulders. His sticky bun was going to be taller than him someday. “Why is Master Shang coming to your room, Shizun?”
Shen Yuan rolled his eyes at the accusatory tone. As if he would willingly have Master Shang over in the middle of the night to converse. Shizun does have standards, Binghe! “Hopefully because he found Shizun an elephant.”
“But in the middle of the night?!”
“Shizun thinks Binghe would have noticed if this one had callers in the middle of the night.” Binghe’s face went cherry red.
His sticky bun was so sticky. If Shen Yuan’s sleeve was even a millimeter from his tea, he was already there to move it. One stone on the path and Binghe removed it. Shizun can look out for himself, Binghe!
“Do you think Master Shang is here to seduce you?”
Shen Yuan looked down at the pitiful man. Binghe was too dramatic. It was more likely Shang QInghua was hiding from his assassin than trying to seduce him. Shen Yuan had no practical experience, but even he knew that anyone who used vegetables for seduction had no idea what they were doing.
“Oh my god,” Shang Qinghua said somewhat later, Shen Yuan having procured some sort of a hot compress. “My head hurts and I could really use to lay down.”
“You are lying down.”
“You don't have an ounce of sympathy at all, do you?” Binghe - who was standing by with the pillow - continued to glare at Shang Qinghua. The familiarity by which Qinghua spoke to Shen Yuan was one of his major bones of contention between them.
“No.” Despite this, Shen Yuan gave him a glass of hot water with a packet of pain killer in it. “Did you come here to hide from your assassin?”
“Your room is a waystation for everyone in this Palace. It is the last place for anyone to hide.” He tried to touch his head and Shen Yuan hit his hand back. “Reports of my attempted murder are greatly exaggerated.” Shang Qinghua kept looking over Shen Yuan’s shoulder with trepidation.
“As you’re ambulatory - sort of - I can see that for myself. What happened?”
“That is not important.” He paused, blinking. “Am I hallucinating or Is there only one bed in this room?” A pause. “You still share the same bed? The very bed on which I am now lying?”
“It’s warmer that way,” Shen Yuan shrugged. It was such a hassle to get another bed and nothing untoward was happening. It was Binghe!
“He’s what? 11? 12?”
“Shizun thinks his Binghe is 11,” Binghe helpfully supplied.
“Ah, marriage contract age,” he muttered. (Shen Yuan missed it, but Binghe was glowing). “Oh-kay, future Consort Luo Binghe.” Shen Yuan narrowed his eyes at him. (Binghe was now rivaling the sun). “This one calls it like this one sees it.” He flinched when Shen Yuan lightly smacked his head with his hand. You deserve that, Shang Qinghua!
“I can see why someone tried to kill you.”
“Oh, about that…” From the depths of his stupid assassin cloak, Qinghua pulled out a mounted animal? head that smelled strongly of lacquer. “I thought you would like this.”
Shen Yuan’s hands itched. He pulled them back into his sleeves. “What is that?”
“Five-fingered golden dragon. And no,” Shang Qinghua pulled it back. “You cannot have one for your courtyard. It runs faster than a horse and while Bingbing would be a snack, you'd be the whole meal. It is probably the remains of some Heavenly God’s tribulation.”
“I was not thinking about that.” Shen Yuan was thinking about that. When he finally had it in his hands, he asked, “Who did you have to sleep with to get this?”
“You would not believe me.”
“You write literature about chrysanthemum-breeching antlers. I would believe anything.” Binghe made a choked noise and Shen Yuan quickly amended, “The flower, Binghe. Deers are particularly drawn to them.” Binghe raised his brow but otherwise said nothing. That was close!
“I accept that.” Shen Yuan and Binghe helped Shang Qinghua to sit up. He only tilted a little before he corrected himself. “Lucky are the Shen Yuans you marry,” Shen Yuan was ready to push him off the bed, but he was likely delusional. While he could get away with Shang Qinghua disappearing, it was too messy and counterproductive. “Young Master Binghe will be an able defender.”
“Binghe, go back to sleep.”
“Shizun assures you that his chastity is safe with Eunuch Shang,” Shen Yuan narrowed his eyes at Binghe’s mulish expression. “If Binghe goes to sleep, Shizun will take you to the Public Courtyard tomorrow.”
“To see deer.” Binghe was obsessed with deer.
“Yes. Shizun and Binghe can see deer.”
“Shizun will only see deer with Binghe.” It was a not-question/question. Bingbing would probably flush one out anyway. Just hopefully not the one he betrayed. He lit a candle for his life.
“Yes. Shizun will only see deer with Binghe.” Binghe disappeared under the blankets.
They both knew that Binghe was not actually sleeping. But Shen Yuan had to make a token gesture at being an adult.
“So, we get to the meat of my visit,” Shang Qinghua said, sort of listing as he kneeled at Shen Yuan’s low table. Taking pity on him, he moved it to the wall so the Fake Eunuch could lean against it and still save face. “The proofs.” He had shifted into Cang Qiong.
“Let me see.”
Somehow (money) Shang Qinghua had located an artist willing to produce the fruit of Shang Qinghua’s (abysmal) imagination. They were fully aware that there were probably reproductions floating around the Capitol, but none attached to the papapa text. Shang Qinghua’s most recent work was a series of vignettes featuring the protagonist Low Wall by the River. Yes, it was a stupid name (see: Shang Qinghua’s previously mentioned poor naming abilities).
Per Volume XIV, Low Wall by the River continued to participate in sexual congress with Bird in the Willow, a very well endowed General in service to Emperor Wang. Low Wall by the River, an abducted concubine and a favorite of the Emperor (see: Vols I-IV), continually demurred ‘This one couldn’t!’ while revealing his chrysanthemum at the drop of hat. Or robe, in this case. In volume XIII, the two had done it on a horse. The artist was not particularly good with horses, so there was conjecture that the two were actually riding a goat.
“Low Wall by the River can do so much better!”
“Better than doing it on a horse?” Shen Yuan went hot. Yes. ‘Hoat’ aside, Shen Yuan was known on occasion to actually enjoy the work of his patron. But sweet times between Low Wall by the River and the young nobleman, the Fair-Faced Prince. Shen Yuan had said as much well and often.
“Only you would read papapa literature for the kissing.” Shen Yuan had never been kissed and wondered if his first would be beneath the stars like Low Wall by the River’s.
“And the animals! Did you know that a rhinoceros horn is reputed to make all poisons inert?”
“Yes. I wrote it.” Shang Qinghua pulled out the next plate. “Unfortunately for your Consortship, Bird in the Willow continues to be a very popular character.”
“But he’s so…” Shen Yuan tried to find the word for it. “High-handed.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is tsundere.”
“That sounds like a barbarian word. What does it mean?”
“Horda’s face hides his heart.” Shen Yuan scowled as Shang Qinghua pulled out another string of random words. “It means that while he is combative? on the outside, his heart is engaged on the inside.”
“More like his ‘little brother.’”
There was an audible laugh under the blanket. Shen Yuan paused. Binghe did not know the Cang Qiong language (Binghe did know the Cang Qiong language. Especially the naughty words). “Go to sleep, BInghe.”
“Binghe is sleeping, Shizun.”
“Consort Luo Binghe,” Shang Qinghua mouthed.
Shen Yuan hit him in the head.
Regarding Cart up the Mountain's work(s): I feel like everyone knows it's Shen Yuan and Liu Qingge is a collector of Volumes V-XIII.
Regarding rhinos (and oh my god, this memory fragment took so long to find when all I could remember was Tang rhinos and thought there were ‘translucent butterflies’ or something) from Li Shangyin (c. 813–858) Untitled:
For bodies without fluttering wings of a splendid phoenix
Their hearts can be linked through the magic thread of the rhino horn
There is no way I could match the Binghe/Shizun poetry (which I am totally winging) with extant Tang poetry. But if Binghe actually studied poetry, he would be all over this poem.
Regarding said horn: The ‘[Book of the] Master Who Embraces Simplicity’ notes that “alchemists speculated the this particular horn was perforated from top to bottom and contained a marvelous substance which grew towards the tip of the horn, creating a star-shaped opening from which was emitted qi. By means of this qi, the magical horn of the rhinoceros was able to communicate with heaven and the world of the spirits." --The Mythic Chinese Unicorn (Jeannie Thomas Parker, 2018)
Shen Yuan is definitely not getting a rhino.
Thank you all for continuing to read this thing.
Chapter 11: Found Family
Shen Yuan's birthday is an Orchid Palace holiday. Binghe is consulting star charts.
Every year, during the third week of September, a package from the Emperor’s Palace arrived. Because of the gravity of the gifter, it was always delivered by the most senior of the Emperor’s household Eunuchs (a revolving position depending on paranoia and backroom politicking). The current Senior Eunuch was...surprise! related to Consort Daji.
It was one of the few days of the year that Shen Yuan had to be dressed and ready early to receive it. With all the pomp and excitement one would have expected of a Consort receiving a gift from the Emperor.
Shen Yuan yawned.
When Shen Yuan opened his eyes that morning, Binghe was standing directly over him. “Shizun!”
“Binghe.” Shen Yuan sighed, the name coming out thick and throaty. It had been startling the first, oh, hundred times he’d woken up with a Binghe staring down at him. Now, he just blinked. Shen Yuan was obviously still asleep as he reached out to boop his nose. So very high now.
“Shizun! Shizun! Shizun!”
It was really too early (9 o’clock!) to have Binghe chirping in his ear. Behind the screen, he could hear Yingying preparing tea and breakfast. Pulling the blanket over his head, Shen Yuan went back to sleep. Or tried to. He had been dreaming of the cold, crisp forests of Qing Jing and the jewel-tipped owls that lived there. In his dream, Shen Yuan swallowed an egg whole, carrying a ‘guest’ in his belly. He was waiting for whomever was on the other side of his door, opening and…
“Wake up, Shizun! Wake up, Shizun!” Mo chirped in his ear, Binghe’s little blue ball of fluff. This bird! This child!
“Master Shen, you have to get up,” Yingying, heartless, forced him out of bed and into a ‘nice’ robe (400 lbs), into his ‘nicest’ hair ornaments (pinching), and even got a puff of rice powder on his face before he’d had enough.
Binghe kept adding things into Shen Yuan’s bowl - pork here, pickled ginger here - while also letting Mo graze from an assortment of fruit and seeds. Such a thoughtful bun.
His poor courtyard was quiet now, recovering from the mortal terror of the swans he’d been gifted in the Spring. They had all (Yingying, Binghe, Madam Wu and Shen Yuan) had to hold the screens closed so they didn’t get in and eat them all. Swans were too vicious! Sadly, they had succumbed to a rare bird flu only a week after they’d arrived. Madam Wu had offered her condolences and brought Meng Mo to soften the loss. (She had, in fact, poisoned the swans and felt no regret).
By 11 o’clock, all pomp and circumstance had been fulfilled. The Head Eunuch delivered several feet of gold embroidered black silk, a bronze and turquoise belt hook, and the key to the Peach Garden. This was what made it all worthwhile (and the fact that he could charge the Emperor’s Head Eunuch four times what he would other purchasers of Low Wall by the River Volume XV). The Peach Garden was, as per the package, 9 li (about two miles) of peach trees belonging to the Emperor.
Absolutely no one visited the Peach Garden unless they were invited. Since most of the Emperor’s guests were routed to the Lake of Wine, the Peach Garden was visited, oh, maybe ten times a year. There were one hundred trees, requiring dozens of caretakers, requiring dozens of grass clippers, requiring dozens of beekeepers, etc, etc.
For ten visits a year.
At least Shen Yuan visited his courtyard everyday.
“When you were little,” Shen Yuan said, as they walked among the trees. It was just slightly past their prime, though there was still fruit to be had. “Shizun had a peach tree in our courtyard.”
Binghe was very strange when reminded of his tiny sticky bun period. Particularly when his eyes fell on the portrait Shen Yuan had of him: a dimpled little bun of five in a dragon hat. He would get pink-faced and remind Shen Yuan, “But your Binghe is much older now, Shizun.”
“Yes,” Shen Yuan turned to him. “You were so cute,” Binghe ground his teeth. “But now you are so handsome.” Night shifted to day, Binghe preened. “One day,” Shen Yuan lifted his robe to avoid a tree root. “You will have a peach tree of your own.”
Shen Yuan, genuinely, was only speaking about peach trees.
“This Binghe will only eat from Shizun’s tree.” The peaches in his courtyard had been awful, Binghe! The fruit was always too hard or completely rotten. One year, there had only been a single, judgmental peach.
Binghe was not talking about peach trees.
“Shizun is sure Binghe will have many trees.” Better trees, Binghe! Shang Qinghua had been a terrible gardener.
“Binghe will only eat Shizun’s peaches.” This was too much to put on him! Shen Yuan could not be responsible for growing trees. Would they even grow in Qing Jing? He couldn’t even write to ask Shen Jiu. It was too suspicious!
So Shen Yuan did what he always did, shove things into the future. “When Binghe is older.”
In the Spring, Binghe had asked, “When is my birthday?” He was surrounded by astronomy charts and books that Shen Yuan had never seen before on fortune telling. “My real birthday.” It was too strange!
“Shizun doesn’t know, Binghe.” They decided to celebrate during the month Shen Yuan had found him, March. Binghe chose the day. The number 8 was very auspicious, so March 8. “Why does Binghe ask?”
“Oh..” he moved some of his charts aside. “Binghe just wondered…”
He was so distraught that Shen Yuan hugged him for an hour while his bun cried. “Why is Binghe so upset?” It was hard to discern, but something about March 8 not being auspicious.
“So,” Shang Qinghua said. “There is a registry of all ‘favors’ the Emperor has bestowed upon his ladies: the Book of Intimate Encounters. All visits are tallied and witnessed by the Head Eunuch. Like,” Shang Qinghua shivered. “There is always a Eunuch Level 1 observing the proceedings. Just in case the old man jumps the gun. Or other orifices--”
“Okay, I get it.” Shen Yuan’s face was burning. This was really too much! ‘Hoat’ shenanigans were one thing. But he actually knew these people. “Your drive to rise the Eunuch ranks is so obvious now.”
Shang Qinghua completely ignored him. “This is all cross-checked against the Book of Auspicious Beginnings. To verify that the Emperor’s children are his children.”
“Is it even possible...that they aren’t?”
“The Emperor has 4000 concubines and promotion is 100% predicated on children. Sons are the currency of the Orchid Palace and there’s what? A 50/50 chance that it might be a girl? It would take the Emperor 10 years if he only visited someone once and with few exceptions, we all know where he’s been spending the last few years. Chocolate?” Shang Qinghua always had the best chocolate, the cheap ones you could only get at temple fairs. “You’re the only dick in the Palace. Unless?”
“Why would you ask about that?” Shen Yuan scowled. This is too embarrassing!
Shang Qinghua’s eyebrow went up. He pointed to his own nethers. “I believe that I am uniquely stationed to ask that question. But if you won’t answer… Is it true that there are no women in Qing Jing?”
Did absolutely no one have any knowledge of biology? He made a note for later Shen Yuan to go over such things with Binghe. Because, come on!
“How do you even--?”
“So,” Shen Yuan said with authority. “It’s impossible to find out Binghe’s actual birthday.”
“I did not say that.”
Zhuzhi-lang looked at the bone for a long time before he said, “It’s very rare to find artifacts like this outside of the Duchy.” The ambassador thumbed the small, white fragment. Shen Yuan stayed in the shade of the Public Garden gazebo. It was too hot!
His mind strayed to crushed ice confectionary. Though Shen Yuan had invited Zhuzhi-lang, the ambassador had brought candied rose petals that melted on his tongue. Somewhere, Binghe was copying out the Shang Annals against his will. [Conversation two hours prior: ‘While it is almost worse than Shang Qinghua’s--’ ‘Master Shang writes--’ ‘Ah, no, no. If he wrote…’]
Bingbing was on Shen Yuan’s lap and he’d sent Yingying off for a few days with her family. Which was why he was a little droopy under the gazebo with the ambassador.
It was a good thing Binghe knew how to knot up his hair. He could not say the same for the butchery he’d made of Binghe’s. Shen Yuan actually felt true pity for Binghe copying out his family history with his lopsided topknot. The Shang Annals were revisionist drivel. It was as likely the Shangs had descended from the Heavens as there was the existence of a ‘hoat.’
“Is it very old?” Even Shen Yuan’s fan had begun to droop.
“Oh, not so very,” Zhuzhi-lang sounded distracted, though he looked up and smiled, “How did this come into your hands?”
“It belongs to someone very important to me,” Shen Yuan said, earnestly. “My special person.”
“Oh,” Zhuzhi-lang, said, obviously startled. “I didn’t know you… well...” He started and stopped, before adding ruefully, “This one wishes you the best.” He stared at Shen Yuan a bit more, adding, “She is very lucky.”
Shen Yuan’s smile was known to blind the unprepared (this reaction the reason he was a self-conscious smiler) and it was full force here. “So you do know who this belonged to.”
“Consort Shen can read it.”
“Only a little. Some of the characters are closer to those the Oracles use.’” Those Binghe studied religiously. “But I’m unfamiliar with this,” he pointed to some of the characters.
“You are not at all what one expects, Consort Shen,” Zhuzhi-lang gave Shen Yuan a wistful look that would be familiar to Liu Qingge and almost everyone who wanted to keep him. It was a language that Shen Yuan had absolutely no dictionary for. He didn’t even realize he needed one. “So this … special person … she… is inside the harem?”
“No,” Shen Yuan sighed. “She died seven or eight years ago. Just before I came here.” Zhuzhi-lang’s hand curled around it. “Did Zhuzhi-lang know this person?”
“There is no distance when you look at the blue of the mountains of home.” He didn’t even read the bone. “It’s a blessing for those leaving home. This,” his fingers uncurled and he pointed to the characters Shen Yuan had not been able to read. “Is Xi and this is Yan, the color of the sky just before it is dark. And this,” he pointed to another set of characters. “Is Zu and this is Zhi, a bamboo branch. This one sent this with Xiyan when she left our father’s home.”
Shen Yuan’s fan stopped. “This belonged to Zhuzhi-lang’s sister?”
“Your special person…” The Ambassador paused. “This belongs to Consort Shen’s… shadow,” he said, breaking with realization. “Binghe is not Consort Shen’s son?”
“Binghe is not this one’s son,” Shen Yuan sighed. How many times must he explain this?! “Binghe is this one’s…”
“Special person, so Consort Shen said.” Why did everyone make it sound...like that? Binghe was Binghe! There really wasn’t a category for him. He was Shen Yuan’s special person. “This one has a nephew.” He said it the way a man was told he was a new father, awed. “Consort Shen is owed my eternal gratitude.”
“Binghe will be pleased,” Shen Yuan thought.
Binghe was not pleased.
“Why is my Binghe doing this?” Shen Yuan said against Binghe’s hair, pinning the crying boy against his body. At least he had stopped struggling. It was a good thing Binghe couldn’t see his face. When Binghe was this distraught, it nearly brought Shen Yuan to tears.
“Shizun is my family! My only family.” Binghe had thrown the Zhou sigil - presented when they’d met up with Zhuzhi-lang earlier - somewhere. Shen Yuan would have to hunt for it later. “Binghe only wants Shizun.”
In a (very) rare moment of emotional intelligence, Shen Yuan pressed Binghe close enough that he wouldn't see Shen Yuan’s face. “Shizun will never leave his Binghe. What would I do without you?” The last he said in Cang Qiong, unable to say it so Binghe understood. (Binghe understood).
This sticky, troublesome child.
‘Shizun is beautiful,’ Mo chirped from the other side of the room. ‘Binghe is better than Bird in the Willow. Bird in the Willow.’
Shen Yuan went very still. “Binghe…”
“Shizun…” the shameless boy said, breaking out into fresh tears.
After the birthday wishes and gifts had been given (for the day), Shen Yuan was with (most of) his favorite people. Yingying had paused for a cup of tea. Bingbing lay on his back, balls out. Binghe’s lumpy head was in Shen Yuan’s lap, after usurping it from Bingbing. It was a cloudy night and a little cold, but it didn’t matter. “January 27.”
“You were born on January 27, 12th year of Zhou Xi. Binghe will be 12 soon.”
“Shizun!” Binghe shot up in absolute excitement, nearly upending the low table. “What is your year?” You’re not supposed to ask that, Binghe!
“In the Shang, Di Yi 29. But in Qing Jing, it is Ju 814.” Binghe did not have enough fingers to count it. “Shizun is 23.”
“That is not so old,” Binghe said, very pleased, eyes full of the stars the clouds were covering. “Binghe has to do something. Binghe will be back.” He ran into the rooms, the sound of brushes and paper following.
“Binghe is obsessed with astrology,” he said, completely unaware of Yingying’s secret smile. Or of the calculations going on behind him as Binghe found an auspicious date.
Shen Yuan snuck a candied rose petal as Mo twittered from inside the room ‘Shizun is necessary for a good life.’
[Warning! Bloviation protocol in 3...2...1]
The Shang calendar was lunisolar and after I fell down a hole of astrological calculations… I just ended up hand waving and went with the ruling year of the king (Emperor in this case) in office. Zhao Xi being the last Shang. For purposes of this story, Shen Yuan is 12 years older than Binghe. Shen Jiu, Liu Qingge, and Zhuzhi-lang are 20 years older than Shen Yuan and Qi-ge is 15 years older than Shen Jiu.
Age is relative here. By the magic of hand waving, their lifespans are on the Tolkien/Yu the Great scale (who was almost 100 when he may/may not have died).
Madam Wu, age undisclosed, is played (in my head) by Michelle Yeoh.
Meng Mo, the budgie, makes his first appearance.
The Shen family history states that they are descended from Osprey (Ju). Yes, Shen Yuan is a hypocrite. The Shang founding myth did feature the eating of a blackbird’s egg in its entirety. And magic.
The Shens are a matrilineal clan, worship woman ancestors, and every hundred or so years there is a Falcon Lord (believed reincarnated from the first ancestor, Shen Ying). Their word for gender ('person') is hard to translate, so they just use 'he/him/male' when dealing with 'standard.' Thus the rumor that there are no women in Qing Jing.
The Qing Jing language is not from the same language tree as...pretty much everyone else’s in this story. Over hundreds of years of intermingling and loaner words, the native Cang Qiong dialect is very difficult to understand from ‘standard.’ The further east you go, the more ‘standard’ the language gets. Bai Zhan, which is a Cang Qiong off-shoot, uses only a few Cang Qiong words.
The Lius are very close to the Emperor, so Liu Qingge is the War God of Bai Zhan Peak and also General Liu. I cut it from one of the Qingge sections, but a Liu ancestor was pissed off at a Shen ancestor and basically went off to start their own sect. Famously, after a ‘very important battle,’ Shen Jiu had to be carried off the field after cursing Liu Qingge for 18 generations.
Shen Jiu is no joke. Liu Mingyan has advised her brother not to marry.
Chapter 12: Little Brother at the Met
Once again, Shang Qinghua's 'little brother' saves him for all posterior-ity.
Though 92% Shizun-centric, this chapter features Professor Lan and Wei Ying (of Mo Dao Zu Shi / Untamed) some...3000+ years in the future.
If that's not your thing, this chapter is not necessary to the flow of Shizun's narrative.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first thing Lan Zhan ever said to him was, “Xiao di di’s works are nothing more than derivative pornography. There is no literary merit.”
Lou Wei, who had stumbled into CHN 401 Pre-Qin Poetical Narrative instead of CHN 01 East Asian Martial Arts Film, had no idea a class like this even existed. He should have stood right up and spent the semester taking apart the fucking awesome Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung table fight in Ip Man 2. Instead, he kept his ass in the seat and asked the TA for the course (who had been highlighting the texts they would be reading, actual professor whereabouts unknown), “So, to clarify," he paused for a name.
"Mr Lan. We’re not going over Xiao di di’s body of work?” He probably shouldn’t have wrapped the name in so much meaning.
But honestly, he wouldn’t be Lou Wei if he didn’t.
The second thing Lan Zhan said was, “Are you supposed to be in this class…” reaching for a name.
In a moment of madness? inspiration? He said: “Wei Ying.” The name his mother gave him before he fell into the American educational system.
But Lan Zhan was the real deal. 100% Mainlander and well, Wei Ying had never been able to check himself (often wrecking himself).
“Wei Ying, this course is only for Masters-Level students in the Chinese History or Literature tracks.” Mr Lan looked very stern. It would probably have been off-putting to a normal person, but it made Wei Ying want to poke him. He was extremely good looking in that stick-up-your-ass way that spoke (to Wei Ying) of a secret well of unbridled lust. This was definitely something he could get behind. Or into, really.
“Yes. I’m studying Chinese Literature,” the undergrad film studies major said. “Can I?” The girl next to him handed over her pen with a smile and he stole a syllabus from another desk. “I’m a great fan of Cao Cao myself, but thought ‘what the hell?’ why not take this as an elective.”
“Really.” This was not a question.
“What can I say? I have a hard-on for Xiao di di.” There was a buzz of laughter amongst the… 4 students. Who wouldn’t like the guy who introduced the world to the phrase ‘heavenly sky pillar'? Wei Ying thought he was particularly clever.
Mr Lan did not.
“I can help you select a different elective after class.”
Of course, Wei Ying did not change electives (though he did charm his way into the Masters-level course). Mr Lan, who was getting credit to TA the course because the College was too cheap to offer livable wages or tenureship to professors (thus the missing actual professor of the course), was actually Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan did have a stick-up-his-ass. But apparently that was Wei Ying’s thing? He certainly invested a significant amount of time towards befriending the prickly literature major while his brother gave him shit.
But that’s another story.
Two years of literature time-hopping while still finishing his film studies undergrad later brought them to this:
“Shizun.” Still nothing.
“Shizun!” This got a reaction from the man behind the desk. Lan Zhan, now 26, a bonafide post-doc and… the keeper of the keys for the part of the campus museum only post-docs getting credit to teach undergraduates had.
“Yelling in the museum is grounds for expulsion.” Lan Zhan had only expelled him once, carrying him like a sack of rice over his shoulder after a heated argument on what species the Xuanniao actually was and the logistics of consuming a whole egg if, in fact, it was the size of an ostrich. ‘Asian ostriches were extinct by the Holocene,’ he’d said. ‘But nice try.’
Lan Zhan loved the old old lit. He had put in a proposal to write his thesis on the influence of ‘The Shizun’ on the life of Emperor Luo. Which had been tweaked twice for the difficulty of defense and ability to graduate before NYU kicked him out. It was working its way through the College hierarchy for a third time, slightly revised.
Wei Ying, in his novelty New Year’s dragon hat, had locked up Lan Zhan's Red Bulls until he submitted the proposal again. ‘Just because 'The Shizun' only exists in a few Oracle bones and a handful of bronze mentions doesn’t mean you can’t get 900-pages out of it.’
By this point, Wei Ying knew that Lan Zhan did, indeed, have a stick up his ass. He also had a one bedroom in Chelsea and his brother was a well known actor. He refused to watch anything Xichen was in, so Wei Ying became a Xichen auteur. Lan Zhan hadn’t yet discovered that Wei Ying had his brother’s number and they gossiped like schoolgirls behind his back.
Lan Zhan was brusque, but solid. You never doubted if he had your back.
[By this point, Lan Zhan knew that Wei Ying had accidentally minored in ancient Chinese literature while working through his film studies major. He knew that Wei Ying floated around sublets and housesat because he couldn’t afford a safety deposit. That he spent weekends filming weddings but sometimes just disappeared for weeks with his cameras. That he was bad at returning calls and did not appreciate when Lan Zhan called the cops to file a missing person report. He knew that Wei Ying thought he was the ‘fucking coolest person in the world,’ having offered it often and effusively while drunk. This seriously bemused him. He was not the ‘fucking coolest person in the world.’ But he wanted to be.]
“What is The Shizun but ‘a dancing shadow traced in the dragonfly lamp’?” Wei Ying’s elbows supported the weight of his head as he looked at Lan Zhan. “But…” a dramatic pause. “Shizun is brighter.”
The surfacing of documents suggesting Emperor Luo’s authorship of the Shizun Stanzas in the Book of Songs at Xi’an had made Lan Zhan lose his shit. So much so that he’d flown back to China and wasn’t heard from again for thirteen months. Wei Ying housesat the apartment in Chelsea and watered the plants he brought with him. Xichen let him know Lan Zhan was alive.
Lan Zhan asked “Why are you here?” as if Wei Ying didn’t spend 95% of his free time at the tiny Museum working on a stop-motion short of a stuffed budgie walking across the table. The coffee Wei Ying slid over was a given.
“Lan Zhan. Did you hear that a rare edition of the Chrysanthemum is Open and Pluckable was just put on display at the Met?”
Lan Zhan scoffed. “Pornography.”
“It even merited a spot in the prints and not sequestered to Asian arts.” They looked at each other, Lan Zhan taking a sip of his stupid hot coffee. “Lan Zhan. Pornography with marginalia.”
What else was there to say? “Little Brother is my spirit animal?”
“That is both culturally insensitive and offensive.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying fluttered his long eyelashes, “Do you want to break into the Met with me?”
“I would like nothing more.”
Breaking into the Met was not as sexy as one would assume (if one assumed such things). Wei Ying knew a guy who worked security (‘the pay is awful, but the benefits are great’) who was willing to key them in during a systems upgrade. “Just don’t leave any fingerprints,” he handed over a ziploc with gloves. “You have two hours until the system is back online.”
“Did you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?” Wei Ying asked while they trudged through the half-lit hallway. He kept expecting the statues to come alive and chase them down the corridors. There was a feeling of ‘I shouldn’t be here’ that tingled through his body.
“Your childhood was so deprived.” Wei Ying had only read the book the day he decided to break into the Met. But Lan Zhan had had a deprived childhood. Which had been made very clear the first time Wei Ying taught him to toast marshmallows over the gas burner of the stove in his cramped ass sublet in Harlem.
“It’s a good thing I met you then.”
“You can’t just say things like that, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying announced, his voice echoing and laughing. “I might start to believe you.”
“Aren’t the prints that way?” Wei Ying had, in fact, been leading them in the opposite direction.
“But I want to see the Temple of Dendur. I wonder how ominous it looks at night!” The atrium that housed the Temple of Dendur was bathed in the lights of Central Park and the cars on the 86th street Transverse were a distant murmur. Lan Zhan humored him as Wei Ying laid on the ground under the temple header. “I used to come here everyday when I went to Chinese school at 92nd.” No one really noticed an unaccompanied boy in a maroon blazer with a quick smile and a joke.
“Yeah?” Lan Zhan, always more proper, had chosen to sit on the low wall by the artificial river.
“When ‘The Shizun’ was alive,” Wei Ying put the name in the finger quotes it deserved, “Egypt was in the New Kingdom. Your heavy hitters: Amenhotep, Tutankhamen, Nefertiti, Rameses.” Lan Zhan was quiet. “It makes you feel really small.”
“Wei Ying is not small.”
He laughed. “You’re such a sweet-talker, Lan Zhan. It’s just a...good smallness. A single voice in the stream of time that there but for the grace of bone would have remained unknown. Remember me Professor Lan!”
“Breaking into the Met has made you a philosopher,” Lan Zhan said, standing over Wei Ying and offering his hand. “We have 1 hour 30.”
Because they were breaking the law anyway, Lan Zhan took pictures. Wei Ying called him ‘naughty’ but was also the one turning the pages after jerry-ringing the thing open. “It’s a good thing we’re nerds. We could steal anything right now.”
“It’s not like you haven’t already added the exhibit book to your Amazon wish list.”
“Sometimes it’s scary how well you know me. But,” Wei Ying pouted. “They left the really good parts out, so here we are.”
“I feel like my heart is going to beat out of my chest,” Lan Zhan whispered while Wei Ying turned the page to a particularly excellent portrayal of Low Wall by the River’s most intimate parts being plucked by Bird by the Willow’s quite impressive member. Because Wei Ying was a (lazy) polymath and had perfect recall, he could read the characters: In the Summer, the Chrysanthemum unfurled on the Branch.
“Breaking the law can do that to you,” he said absently, “You get used to it.” He was fairly certain that Lan Zhan said ‘I’m coming Shizun,’ under his breath. He decided to let Lan Zhan maintain face and didn’t laugh.
The heart wants what the heart wants.
Wei Ying knew that Lan Zhan, 6, had gone to a birthday party for a schoolmate...and ended up in the library. ‘Do you know what that is?’ the schoolmate’s father had asked, pointing to three bone fragments suspended to show where they’d once been whole. ‘This is the hereness of someone who lived thousands of years ago.’
Lan Zhan was suitably wowed.
‘Do you see this character?’ The man had asked, pointing to a three leaved branch. ‘This is Shi,’ he sketched out the modern character in Lan Zhan’s palm. ‘And this is Zun,’ he read as Lan Zhan looked at the spider looking glyph on the bone.
‘What does it say?’
‘It says,’ Professor Shang said, ‘Shizun is necessary for a good life.’
Four hours later, they were flicking through the photos on the projector Wei Ying set up for him because he was tired of watching movies on Lan Zhan’s laptop. The remains of an unhealthy amount of Papaya King wrappers (all Wei Ying’s) around them.
“Oh, that one has words in the margin.” Lan Zhan had taken forty shots of the page, eight of them too blurry to make out. “What does it say?” Wei Ying was reading the inside of his eyelids at this point. Breaking and entering - and six hotdogs - were hard on a body. His partner in crime would probably be up for three days studying every pixel, working through a case of Red Bulls.
Lan Zhan put on his fucking glasses, because he was the biggest nerd in the world. “Why would anyone... put a ...stick in ... there? ”
“Oh my god,” Wei Ying cry-laughed. “I’m going to marry this guy.”
“You already claimed Xiao di di,” Lan Zhan said sternly before Wei Ying mimed the words coming out of his mouth: “Shizun is necessary for a good life.”
He was already asleep when Lan Zhan said, “Wei Ying is necessary for a good life.”
Still playing fast and loose with dynasties...and paper.
Yesterday, I discovered that Investiture of the Gods (2019) is streaming on Netflix (in the US). My fervent hope is that I don't spend four days mainlining it like I did Untamed (my first entry into MXTX and eventually to SVSSS after a 'hey, I just finished 14 Blades. What is this Untamed thing?')
In it, Daji is taking down the Shang dynasty from the inside. This romanticism of Daji is exactly what I think will happened to Emperor Luo and his Shizun in the modern era.
Shizun will be a female Shen operative disguised as a man, playing her 'harem' on her quest to take down the Empire. Shen Jiu will be her worthless brother, unable to hold the crumbling Qing Jing together, bullied by the ruthless Cang Qiong Duke Qingyuan.
Liu Qingge is her star-crossed lover, dying young to save her. Their first (and only) kiss is as he lay dying. She carries the Liu sigil with her.
Luo Binghe will be the injured (and incredibly hot) man she finds in the depths of the Orchid Palace with amnesia. Who is he? The only way to heal him is to hide him in her room.
Shang Qinghua will be 'uncredited Eunuch #3.'
Thanks for continuing to read these random words I throw at my screen. I appreciate everyone passing through: readers, kudo throwers, and commenters.
Chapter 13: We Rise From Phoenix Ash
A teaser for the upcoming 'We Rise From Phoenix Ash.' Not streaming in all markets.
Absolutely self indulgent. I could not resist this after my notes last chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
INT. EARLY YUAN DYNASTY BEDROOM - DAY
We open on YUAN (a stunningly beautiful woman dressed as a man) kneeling by the window overlooking a desolate courtyard. Her face is illuminated by weak sunlight. We close in on her cheek. A single tear marks the face powder of her cheek. We push in closer to see she has a JADE SIGIL in her hand reading: 柳 (Liu).
YUAN (to the JADE SIGIL):
EXT. HILL OVERLOOKING A VALLEY - RAINING
LIU QINGGE (16), covered in blood, has dropped to his knees at the base of Bai Zhan Peak. There is fighting all around them. QIGGHE’s sword is on the ground beside him. YUAN (16), is also on her knees, dressed in men’s clothing. YUAN has LIU QINGGE’S hand in her hand. There is blood on her neck.
INTERCUT - BATTLEFIELD
A pan shot of thousands of arrows flying towards BAI ZHAN PEAK. Broken bodies lay on the field. We close in on QINGYUAN, surrounded by Mongols. The YUE BANNER is shredded, but standing. QINGYUAN is fighting for his life.
HILL OVERLOOKING A VALLEY
LIU QINGGE (coughing blood)
You must save yourself.
LIU QINGGE'S sword is on the ground. His hand is still closed around the hilt, but the audience sees that his arm is broken. The LIU SIGIL hangs off his belt.
YUAN (using a bloody cloth to wipe his face)
This one will never leave you. You are my fated one.
YUAN is on her knees, dressed in armor. She has removed her helmet to care for LIU QINGGE. She is crying. She has ripped part of her robe to staunch the blood at LIU QINGGE'S chest.
LIU QINGGE (brings hand to her cheek)
Our fates are entwined for a hundred lifetimes. No matter where you go, this one will find you.
This one will never love again until we rise from phoenix ash as two koi
and swim in the shade of the lotus blossom
LIU QINGGE unloops the LIU SIGIL from his belt. He has to try several times, but it finally comes free.
LIU QINGGE (sitting up and bowing to YUAN)
May the Heavens bind us
LIU QINGGE kowtows to the Heavens. Overlay transparent image of the Jade Emperor looking down over the trees. YUAN immediately kowtows as well.
May the Heavens bind us
May our ancestors bless us
LIU QINGGE kowtows to their ancestors. Overlay transparent image of the LIU ancestors looking down over the trees. They are all in armor and look menacing.
May our ancestors bless us
May we love always
Peach blossoms fall around them. Cue: ‘QINGGE & YUAN theme song': My love will follow you no matter where you go ...
May we love always
LIU QINGGE presses the JADE SIGIL into her hand.
This one knows that SHEN JIU cannot protect you. You must...you must do...whatever you can...to survive. Promise me.
This one promises, my husband
YUAN sees that LIU QINGGE has died. A single tear falls down her cheek.
INT. EARLY MING DYNASTY BEDROOM - DAY
Mirroring the last flashback shot, we immediately focus on the tear falling down YUAN’S cheek. The ghost of LIU QINGGE stands behind her, his hand on her shoulder. We push in closer to see she has a JADE SIGIL in her hand reading: 柳 (Liu).
YUAN (to the JADE SIGIL):
I have done everything I could...to survive.
No serious notes. Just thinking that Xichen was offered the role of Luo Binghe and wanted Yue Qingyuan (so he isn't typecast). Also, I would probably watch every episode of this show with a box of tissues.
From additional previews:
You have won, QINGYUAN. What else do you want from me?
You have always been weak, SHEN JIU. Now you will pay the price for your inability to protect your own people.
Chapter 14: Icy River Cuts Through The Wall, Take One
Shen Yuan plays 'wingman' to Binghe's crush.
Shen Yuan could hear arguing from his rooms even before he arrived.
Hours after Consort Daji’s serving maid and seven Eunuchs had come to collect him for the unveiling of the Phoenix in her private reserve, Shen Yuan was exhausted.
This particular event was, thankfully, an official ‘unveiling’ and not a salacious ‘unveiling.’
Some years ago, Shen Yuan had found himself at a salacious ‘unveiling.’ He had been working through an edible bird’s nest stuffed with egg tart (highly recommended), when one of the dancing ladies’ veils hit him in the head and nearly took his eye out (highly not recommended). By the time he was able to see again, everyone was naked and he wished he still couldn’t see.
Criticism of such events (and/or escape) was not appreciated. A daughter of Lord Jiu, Concubine Level 3, had lost her life over the shock of it. It was said that at one of the feasts (that he was never invited to) her ground body was served as one of the courses.
He managed to crawl behind a screen - with a handful of precious egg tarts - where he hid until he was seen by a young woman bearing a tray of oil and cloths. Shen Yuan could not imagine why a tray of oil was needed, unless it was to prise bodies apart. It was too much!
‘Please get me out of here,’ he’d mouthed. The servant, Yingying, took pity on him and rearranged the screens enough that he could slip out. ‘How can I repay you?’
‘Master Shen, that is not necessary.’ Her robes were covered in unknown liquids and she was bruised from pinching.
‘Do you know how to style men’s hair? Oh, this one doesn’t care if you can. You can learn. Let’s go.’ And that was how Shen Yuan stole Yingying from the ‘pleasure kitchens’ (do not ask, really) and brought her to the Orchid Palace. He was something of a legend amongst the Palace servants due to his careless generosity (amongst all his ridiculous peculiarities). He had no idea the impact his little kindnesses had on people.
Seven years ago
“So, it’s true then.” The woman seated across from Shen Yuan possessed deceptively soft eyes. She was perfectly polished and quite beautiful. Servants held her sleeves aside as she sipped at her tea. Two others fanned her at the perfect speed to allow the delicate bells in her hair to ring out. It was… well, it was a bit much. Her sons by the Emperor seated alongside her on silk pillows dressed in imperial gold.
To recap, it was a bit much.
Shen Yuan made a noncommittal sound, as if he had any idea of where the conversation was headed. “There are no women in Qing Jing Peak.”
So, firstly, this was just… was no one aware of how children were made?
When Shen Jiu told him that Consort Daji was (direct quote) ‘a conniving pile of shit,’ Shen Yuan had expected, well, something worse. The color on his bottom lip would tingle if the tea was poisoned. The red stone hairpin opened to a razor this dagger. But this.
“I,” the Consort was very intimate in her address though they’d only met a half hour ago. “Admit that I am pleasantly surprised.” This was absolutely true. Consort Daji had lost her mind - destroying her rooms and all the gifts the Emperor had bestowed upon her - when news of a Shen Consort had first come. She knew how susceptible the Emperor was to a beautiful face. It was well known that the Shen Master of Qing Jing Peak was incomparably handsome. So much so that they said he stayed away from Court so that others could find wives.
It stood to reason that the Shen Consort would be a threat.
Shen Yuan was quite possibly the most handsome person Consort Daji had met, having never had the pleasure of Shen Jiu. But he was undeniably male. There were many in the Court that would not be dissuaded by this, but the Emperor was not one of them. The Emperor’s Seed (capitalization due to its value) was never squandered in fallow ground. This would be a political union only.
Sitting across from him, she went through a short list of potential wives for him all politically aligned with her own objectives. Unable to bear children, Shen Yuan would be a prize after his nine-years. Able to be pensioned out and distributed by the Emperor.
Sitting across from her, Shen Yuan merely thought that it was a little too cool in the room to have fans, artful or not. Just as he realized he hadn’t made any commentary on Consort Daji’s artful small talk, he noticed a peacock alighting the low branches of a tree outside her courtyard.
He had no idea they could actually fly. This was … so cool. “Is there something behind me?” She turned to see what he was looking at (only slightly irritated), and smiled. “Oh, that is one of my peahens. They were gifted to me by His Majesty.” She had been dropping the Emperor’s name to...no effect on Shen Yuan. He could care less.
“This one apologizes,” Shen Yuan collected himself, offering obeisance as she was the highest ranking Consort. “This one has never seen such a thing.” Or rather. Shen Jiu had never allowed such a thing. He was certain he could have bought one off of the Western traders who passed through Cang Qiong.
“Would you like to see it closer?”
It did end up pecking Shen Yuan’s finger before flying off. This did not dissuade him from covetously wanting one of his own. Perhaps a dozen. His Orchid Palace Courtyard was very empty.
In the sunlight, Consort Daji thought that perhaps Consort Shen was too handsome. His eyes were too remarkable. His awkward manner was too becoming. His smile was too sweet. Consort Daji’s handmaidens fell over themselves staring and even her eldest son hid his face in his sleeve.
To be on the safe side (and because he was too politically important to outright kill), he ‘accidentally’ disappeared from the invites to intimate gatherings, one-on-ones with the Emperor, and anything less than 1000 persons. Not to be too obvious, Consort Shen was always invited to events at her preserve. He was all kindness and awe and it filled Consort Daji with great pride. His flattery did not feel like flattery.
While technically a Consort would be expected to attend all functions, Consort Shen never requested the invites. He was content in the Orchid Palace, tending the flock of peacocks she gifted him, practicing his strange Qing Jing dancing, and sleeping. Other less official ‘guests’ arrived (with the troubling sort of parts) and plots were hatched. Wine Lakes were built and enemies toasted.
Eventually, she forgot about Consort Shen entirely. What Consort Daji forgot, so too did the Emperor.
So back to the racket Binghe was making over the hot water.
Yes. Over hot water. Which was dropped as soon as Shen Yuan walked through the door. Yingying’s temporary replacement, Wanyue, immediately prostrated herself (directly into the puddle of hot water) and Binghe looked mutinous. Shen Yuan caught, ‘You should not be doing this--’ only a moment before.
His head was killing him. “What is happening here?”
Binghe’s cheeks were pink and Wanyue had a wet handprint on her shoulder. Shen Yuan had a good idea of what was happening here. Binghe obviously had some affection for Wanyue. Perhaps he did not want her to work so hard attending to Shen Yuan’s hair washing. Perhaps they had been having a tryst! It was too cute! Ah, first love for his little bun.
“It is not what Shizun thinks!” Shen Yuan was alarmed to see that Wanyue had tears on her cheeks. Perhaps she did not want to leave? Didn’t Cart up the Mountain write about helpers of love? He called them ‘wingmen.’ It was likely that Binghe was too young to know how to woo someone (thought Shen Yuan, who had never had a crush on anything that wasn’t an exotic animal). Leaving them alone in the room would not work. Neither was it possible (or ethical) for him to ‘perfume’ wine for the ‘easing of speech.’ (This was not, in fact, what Cart up the Mountain meant by ‘easing of speech.’ His speech was far throatier and appropriate in only certain contexts).
Binghe’s Shizun would help.
“Wanyue, please get up. It’s alright.” He helped her up. “Could Wanyue have more water brought in? And this cleaned up?” He motioned to the pooled water on the ground. It would be the first time since Yingying became his maidservant that someone else would help him with his hair. Shen Yuan had forced Yingying to rest after she passed out coughing. This girl! “This one would like Wanyue to help me with my hair.”
Wanyue flushed furiously. Incapable of speech, she nodded her head before running off for water. Shen Yuan smiled at Binghe, burning with embarrassed gratitude, trying to relay that he had Binghe’s back without explicitly saying it.
INT. CONSORT LEVEL 4 ROOMS - EVENING
We open on SHEN YUAN (a very handsome man in mussed robes and an indulgent smile) standing over WANYUE (a gobsmacked servant girl of about 14). Her eyes are filled with stars, her heart is filled with TRUE LOVE. We close in on BINGHE (a boy ready to explode). His eyes tremble with BINGHE’S TEARS, he is suffering from A MELODRAMATIC CASE OF VINEGAR POISONING. We push in closer to see he has a crumpled bit of cloth in his hand.
“It is not what Shizun thinks!” He had also gone down to his knees. Per Shen Yuan’s reading, prostrating was usually a good sign of affection. Shen Yuan had the fleeting thought that perhaps Binghe was too young for this depth of feeling, but it was young love! These things lasted a quarter of an incense stick and no more. All the young ladies in Qing Jing who had professed undying love to Shen Yuan had never returned once their ardour burned out (*Shen Jiu cracking knuckles*).
“Shizun understands, Binghe.” Since he was at the perfect level for a head pat, Shen Yuan indulged himself.
“Then why does Shizun need more than Binghe to wash Shizun’s hair?” Because Shizun would like to have hair, Binghe! Wise to Binghe’s false protestations, Shen Yuan smiled.
Should he say something? Ah, but he did not want to embarrass Binghe.
“Please excuse me, Shizun.” The boy walked out of the rooms and into the courtyard (to scream).
“My sweet bun is growing too soon!” Shen Yuan said to himself. He looked over at the silk painting of tiny Binghe in his dragon hat. Bingbing lapped at the spilled water.
After servants came to clean up and bring fresh water, Wanyue laid out the items they would need to wash Shen Yuan’s hair.
“It is too cold. Shizun should wear this.” Binghe plopped a very heavy robe over Shen Yuan’s shoulders that almost toppled him. It was a little cool in the room and in his worry, Binghe had obviously grabbed the wrong robe. Not wanting him to look bad to Wanyue, he belted it and said,
“Shizun thanks you, Binghe.”
As she was new to this process, Wanyue mistakenly brought over Binghe’s grooming kit in lieu of his own. Or had she? Shen Yuan could very clearly smell the scent of the cold sandalwood oil they’d bought when Binghe decided he wanted to make a break from ‘childish things.’ As Binghe was supervising closely perhaps he had directed her to use his own. This was too crafty! Shen Yuan took notes for Cart up the Mountain.
There was scrambling and rough hands went at his scalp, Shen Yuan wincing. Wanyue, what strong hands you have! Water sloshed everywhere and the girl said, “Young Master, you must wash it like this.” Her hands softened. So crafty! No doubt they were ‘accidentally’ touching hands. Shen Yuan could suffer for this.
By the time he was dried, Shen Yuan was grateful for the extra robe (and Yingying, may she return soon!). Wanyue apologetically wiped the floor - valiant first attempt, Wanyue! - while Binghe moved the brazier closer to dry it. Except for Summer, Shizun and Binghe would use it to dry faster. It was not healthy to go to bed with wet hair. Shen Yuan could testify that having had a clump of Binghe’s heavily scented hair smack him on the cheek not pleasant. Binghe had too much hair!
The ends of Shen Yuan’s hair ended up slightly scorched.
“Does Binghe want Wanyue to assist with Binghe’s hair?” Shen Yuan asked, surreptitiously putting out the burning hair.
“Binghe will wait for Yingying.” Wanyue and several servants cleaned up and she left with a lingering look when dismissed.
Binghe gave every impression of being disgruntled. Poor bun!
“Let Shizun play for you, Binghe. Shizun knows you have much on your mind.” He tried to tell Binghe, without telling him anything, that he knew what he was going through.
“I do not know how Master Shen survives,” Wanyue sighed, much later, while she finished washing her own hair with several of the Palace servants whose service was only for the Consort Level 4s. The late nights were theirs to do as they pleased. Often this included gossiping with the Levels 15 and 16 Eunuchs who also served the Consorts. “Young Master is too rough with him.”
“Ai,” the kitchen maid whose water they used, agreed. “Master Shen has such a delicate constitution.”
“Young Master nearly tore Master's hair from his head. It is such a shame, too,” Wanyue sighed, drying off her own hair. “Master Shen is so handsome.”
“Oh, but Young Master means well,” another said, rubbing at her aching feet. “Young Master is fueled by filial piety. I wish I had such a son.”
“Are you calling it filial piety? Young Master is a dog who will snap at anyone who comes near Master Shen. When Master Shen’s nine-years are up, Young Master will be the first in line for a marriage contract.”
Laughter. “Who do you have your money on, then?” The Consort servants had a running pool on who would end up with their Master Shen. Of course, they would poison anyone they didn’t believe was good enough.
They ate well and lived well taking bribes for information on their Master Shen and then lying. ‘Yes, Consort Shen will be at the Festival,’ when he had never done such a thing. ‘Yes, Consort Shen’s favorite color is yellow,’ when he owned nothing in that color as it washed him out. At the moment, Minister Lang was particularly keen. They took his money, but did not promise it.
“The War God, Lord Liu, of course,” one of the higher level maids said. “My grandmother was from Bai Zhan, so there is no doubt in my mind that Master Shen will fall in love with him.”
“Master Shen will likely marry a Princess. He is not the type to dally with men.”
They all looked at the Eunuch before laughing. Everyone at Orchid Palace knew what sort of deliveries came in and out of Consort Shen’s rooms. Most could not read the yellow books, but it didn’t take a literate person to understand the pictures.
“Well, my money is on Eunuch Qinghua.” They all laughed.
“Foolish,” the kitchen maid said with a little sympathy (having received many animals from him). “He’s already married to his assassin.”
“What?!?” Was the general cry at the promise of new gossip. Someone wondered if the bloody room was his consummation and there was pandemonium. Someone’s head met the wooden lid of a cooker.
“I hope Consort Shen never leaves,” Wanyue sighed, staying well away from the group. She loved Consort Shen dearly and was happy just to walk by him. Washing his hair had been the highlight of her life.
“Shizun, this Binghe has to tell you something,” Binghe said the next day after wearing a hole in the floor pacing and muttering to himself.
“It’s completely natural,” Shen Yuan started, trying to spare Binghe the embarrassment, “That Bin--er, young men of Binghe’s age grow attachments to... others. ” Shen Yuan, who had never had to give such a speech, stumbled along. Anything would be better than Shen Jiu’s ‘open your legs to anyone and I’ll cut your dick off. No. I’ll kill them and then cut your dick off.’ Shen Yuan, who had only just discovered that women could ‘open their legs’ to anything had been completely traumatized.
He would do better by Binghe.
“Shizun!” Binghe had fallen to his knees, tears trembling on his lashes.
“I know that young love can be overwhelming—”
“Binghe will only love Shizun!” Like almost every time he said it - which was honestly quite a lot - it was fervent and decided. But Binghe, there is more than just filial love! A pause and then Binghe said quietly, “Has...Shizun loved someone? Someone who...isn’t Binghe?”
Telling Binghe that his first love was the Fair-Faced Prince, first introduced in the Consolation of Low Wall by the River (Vol III) was too embarrassing! Low Wall by the River’s plum-blossom lips had trembled so delicately! The Fair-Faced Prince had ‘touched them like the brush of a butterfly’s wing.’ It was too lovely!
No, Binghe! But that is not the point! “We’re not talking about Shizun.” Shen Yuan said, getting flustered. “Maybe Binghe could tell this person how Binghe feels?”
Binghe seemed to have come to some sort of decision.
“Binghe has tried that, Shizun.” Binghe’s eyes were too intense! “But what if they think Binghe is a child? What if they will not wait for Binghe?!”
Binghe’s sad eyes were moist with fat tears. His poor lovesick bun! Shen Yuan brought him into a hug, trying to emote - without emoting (he was emoting a lot) - the care he bore for Binghe in this, his hour of need. How intense this love affair was! Was it healthy to feel this much? It was unlikely to go anywhere and Binghe’s heartbreak would probably be a hundred times worse.
“If they don’t like Binghe for Binghe, then perhaps they don't deserve Binghe.”
Binghe kissed him.
It was salty and sticky and was more a bashing of teeth. The way Binghe used to hug when his head would clip Shen Yuan’s chin. This child had a hard head! Binghe would need a lot of work to not injure someone in the future. The very far future. Wait!?! Why was this bun kissing so early?!
These thoughts were only moments. Binghe pulled back, quite pleased with himself, to find Shen Yuan’s eyes open, quite baffled. “How was that, Shizun?”
“That was...passing, Binghe,” Shen Yuan offered the way he would remark on Binghe’s scholarly efforts. “But perhaps Binghe is too young to be kissing girls.”
Binghe’s look of triumph melted into complete confusion. “Kissing...girls?”
“Er…” Caught Shizun! “...Wanyue?”
“Shizun…” Binghe sighed, giving Shen Yuan a long look. He walked away from Shen Yuan, turned back, continued to walk again, and cast Shen Yuan one last serious look before he walked off with his head shaking. He disappeared to the courtyard (to scream).
This boy was too confusing! Return soon, Yingying!
Two days later
Shang Qinghua looked down at the hardest working person in the world after himself: Luo Binghe. Obviously, the maiden-hearted Young Master found him harmless enough to interrogate him. Was Qinghua insulted? No. Not really.
“Okay,” Binghe said with conviction. “Give me the ones with kissing.” Was Qinghua insulted that Binghe spoke to him too familiarly? No. Not really. He did have a bad feeling about this. Shen Yuan would actually castrate him for blackening his bun. Shen Yuan’s rose colored glasses did not extend to any misdeed Qinghua had perpetuated.
Shen Yuan always knew.
Qinghua, the OG player, knew that he was being played. He just couldn’t quite figure out how.
He lit a candle for Shen Yuan while handing over the goods to Binghe.
As soon as he was gone, and Qinghua could stop sweating bullets, he brought out his notes: Icy River Cuts Through The Wall, former disciple of Low Wall by the River. Fueled by obsession. Returns to claim his Sifu.
Yes, this was gold.
Regarding the daughter of Lord Jiu:
Unable to take the absolute licentiousness of the Shang court (where I honestly believe a not-this-story Shen Yuan would have been intimately acquainted with the Heavenly Seed), a Concubine Jiu refused to participate. King (Emperor in this story) Zhou had her and her father killed. Per very melodramatic info (can't verify), either the father or his daughter were ground up and fed to other Shang Court officials. All I could find was a (maybe related?) reference that the pure daughter of Jiu Hao had been killed for Daji (The Heir and the Sage, 2016).
So, yeah for not being invited to things?
Cut from this, but made me laugh: There is absolutely zero possibility your Shizun has ever been in love with anything other than exotic animals, he thought. But thigh hugging may be useful. Eventually this kid will burn the world for his Shizun and I've worked hard for Eunuch Level 8. --Shang Qinghua (sometime in the Shang dynasty).
Chapter 15: Qinghua on the ocean, the stars are cold
The continuing (mis)adventures of a hack papapa writer. Or the one where Qinghua becomes a hack poet, is assigned to the North, realizes he's working for a Duke, and is kidnapped. Again.
It was on a clear, brisk day that Qinghua was discovered.
The day began as any other. Ganyuan (Eunuch Level 16) was already up and about. Working for Qinghua was an easy gig (as eunuch gigs went): make sure the floor was warm in the Winter, general cleaning duties as assigned, and copying text. He didn’t have to do any bathing or dressing and Qinghua didn’t mind if he hung around reading when he had nothing for him to do.
As far as he could puzzle together, Ganyuan was about 12 and the kind of average you could lose in a crowd. He had come from a poor sect subsidiary in the sticks already ‘shorn.’ He hadn’t been able to read and his Xu accent had been as thick as day old congee. Ranked about low-average in the exams, he had been headed for kitchen duty with no help from a political backer.
In other words, Ganyuan was perfect.
‘How did you even take the exams if you can’t read?’ Qinghua had asked, absolutely fascinated with his own bun.
‘Ganyuan memorized the old tests, Master Shang. But some questions were different.’ Enter Ganyuan’s eidetic memory. Thus we enter a training montage wherein Qinghua teaches his protege to read, write, and all the other soft skills a mini-Qinghua would need. Ganyuan thought Qinghua hung the moon. Post-family beheading, no one had ever thought Qinghua was more than ‘random Palace Eunuch.’ The feeling was...heady.
He wondered why he hadn’t gone and stolen a Bing-bun earlier, honestly.
Oh yeah. He didn’t want a kissing obsessed pre-teen.
Ganyuan made himself scarce while Qinghua dressed and washed his face behind double screens (for extra security) and returned with breakfast and an armful of documents he’d transcribed the evening before. “So what’s on the docket today, Master Shang?”
Qinghua counted down with his fingers. “Taxes. Taxes. Taxes. And… taxes.” The only reason Shen Yuan wasn’t on the menu was due to Qinghua ‘misplacing’ any requests to the Prime Minister and changing the subject to...conquest. Mostly to the South. For reasons. The Court Ministers were decidedly hawk-leaning even if their army was 90% uncivilized (non-Shang) slaves.
The Ministers could read a room, but sometimes Qinghua thought it was better to be able to read general opinion. Currently not good. Although when times were bad, sales were up for reasonably illustrated papapa. So, win.
Thankfully, Qinghua had a handful of passports packed and was ready to roll (with Ganyuan) when the shit hit the fan. He wasn’t particularly respected, but he was useful. Which was a better adjective when trying to stay alive in the Shang court. If the Emperor was willing to rip out the very respected Sage Bi Gan’s heart to satisfy His Majesty’s curiosity of whether a sage’s heart had ‘seven openings,’ some random ass eunuch was going to end up in the toaster.
This was to be avoided at all cost.
It was during mid-afternoon session (when almost everyone dozed off) that it happened.
“Qinghua and My King at Moson Ger,” Minister Qian Mei said, reading from the scroll Qinghua had handed him earlier with tallies for the Northern trading project he was trying to sell. “Qinghua of the Perfumed Hall. Qinghua under two moons. My King of Moson Ger. My King of crossroads. My King, his sky gray…” Qinghua went completely cold, every (not currently depliated) hair on his body standing on end.
“What is this rubbish, Master Shang?” At moments like these, it was best to just sit there with one’s mouth hanging open, honestly. Idiocracy was a believable look on him.
“Do read on!” Minister Liu - yes, related to General Liu - said with absolute delight. There was, possibly, some bad blood between them. But, come on! Who didn’t have bad blood with Minister Liu?
It might have passed, Minister Liu was only a second row Minister and there was the fact that almost everyone had bad blood with him. But it seemed to catch the Prime Minister’s fancy. Qinghua was certain the Prime Minister didn’t even know who he was. But. It had been a tragically boring session and any possibility to embarrass another Minister was a good time for all. Especially in the learned area of verse. “This one would love to hear more of Master Shang’s poetry.”
“My King, his eyes closed. Kadir beneath Mo Moteh. Qinghua on the ocean, the stars are cold. The beast at Moson Ger.”**
He was grateful to his bones that he’d coded Mobei as ‘My King,’ and not the leader of the Mobei Kingdom.
“Who is this ‘King,’ Master Shang?” Whoever asked also had no idea who Qinghua was as he looked around until someone pointed at him. “A lover?” Okay. So it was neither illegal nor uncommon for a Eunuch to have amoratory relations. High-level Eunuchs could even marry as any ‘issue’ would obviously be the product of ‘outside relations’ with one’s wife (i.e. punishable by death). But his ‘lover’ definitely was referring to Shang Qinghua’s little brother. Or presumed lack thereof.
Not everyone in the Court was a eunuch.
But the Prime Minister was and no matter what he thought of Qinghua’s ‘poetry,’ he did not appreciate any digs at his missing xiao-didi. “That is enough,” he said and everyone grew deathly quiet. He held out his hand and Minister Qian Mei handed over the ‘poem.’ “This one believes this was filed in error. Which will never occur again.”
The bright side of this waking nightmare was that the Prime Minister knew who Qinghua was and now acknowledged him when (if) they passed each other. So, score there.
The dark side (95% of it) of his waking nightmare was earning the appellation ‘The Poet of the Perfumed Hall.’ It had even shown up in the Weekly Court Report (a gossip circular that Qinghua read cover to cover)!
It would never die.
But. It turned out that people were willing to pay for his ‘poetry.’ Actual money on the table. It was a seven day wonder, but one Qinghua was quick to exploit. The public’s whims were fickle. “We need more of these,” he directed Ganyuan, whose fingers were dark with ink.
“Ganyuan understands, Master Shang,” he had already voiced his displeasure of the teasing (good natured or not) Qinghua endured. It was...sweet. That someone would defend him. Shen Yuan had threatened to sue him for tarnishing the brand.
“Eh, Kalish when it rises,” Qinghua shrugged off.
He bought another used rug and a new inkstone for Ganyuan.
In the interest of pandering to his patron (Shen Yuan), Qinghua had been ‘voluntold’ to assist in anatomy lessons for Binghe. Which brought him to this point: standing with paper pinned to various body parts. But nothing for genitalia because Shen Yuan was a dick. Seriously.
Binghe, who was enjoying this too much (I know your secrets, Bing-demon!), kept saying that he ‘didn’t get it’ and asked his Shizun to explain why men couldn’t procreate with other men.
“Am I needed here?” He’d asked when Shen Yuan explained for the fifth time why putting little brother into a cradle didn’t stop his crying. Did he hear himself? How was he so blind to the evil machinations of this little demon child?
He did note that line, though. For use in one of the new series of papapa he’d already outlined.
Ganyuan had also come with - Shen Yuan thought he was adorable and Qinghua a ‘bun plagiarist’ - and was honestly perplexed. It did come out that non-political eunuchs only sacrificed their eggs. If he were a real Eunuch, Qinghua would have been jealous as hell.
When Binghe asked for a physical demonstration, making direct eye-contact with Qinghua, the Poet of the Perfumed Hall was out. He absconded with Ganyuan, papers and all.
Now, the danger of getting the Prime Minister’s attention was...getting the Prime Minister’s attention.
The Emperor had obligations to his people. Obligations he quite often only played lip service to, but obligations nonetheless. One of his Eastern Dukes, a Lord Yan, had come asking for money for city repairs (denied), permission for his heir to marry one of the Emperor’s hundreds of daughters (considering), and an envoy well versed in languages to aid negotiations with the barbarians to the North of his Duchy. As this aligned with the desire of the war-hawks to acquire further slaves for the military (despite having lost every non-Shen led campaign in the past century), the last was something in the realm of possibilities.
The issue was this. No one wanted to leave the safety of the Capitol. Let alone the (even less) secure holding of the (needing repairs) Lord Yan. Aiding in negotiations with a barbarian court was… well, no one was raising their hand.
“Minister Shang,” Qinghua kept his eyes averted.
“Doesn’t Minister Shang have experience with the Northern tribes?” Someone said.
“Who is Minister Shang?”
“The Poet of the Perfumed Hall.” Thanks Minister Liu.
“But wasn’t Minister Shang held hostage by the barbarians for half a year?” Minister Xu, though another third bencher, had his back. “As this one recalls, Minister Shang was the only survivor at Xue Pass.”
“But then Minister Shang would have experience of their culture and language, no?”
If this was not enough, Qinghua received a notice that his Zhou handler - ‘Junshang’ - wanted to meet him. This guy.
After signing his life away to a thankless (but useful) life of small time double-crossing (let’s be honest here, he was strictly small time), Qinghua had been assigned to report to ‘Junshang.’ It took balls to run around with a name like that and this guy had that and more. What he knew about Junshang: he was affiliated with the Zhou Heavenly family (per forehead tattoo), he always met Qinghua at brothels for the ‘qin’ (sure, right), and had an endless thirst for papapa novels.
So, Qinghua put together his ‘stealthy outfit’ (Ganyuan had been able to get most of the blood stains off) and headed to the Little Sister teahouse. He had no plausible deniability. There was a drawing of a giant golden hen hanging on the front of the building.
Junshang was already at one of the low tables in the room he’d rented, several bowls into the plum wine, and nodding along with the guqin music. “Little Brother,” Junshang announced motioning Qinghua to the table. “Order whatever you want.” His handler was actually a rather striking man and it boggled his mind that no one remembered him. (To his credit, the Duke of Zhou owned the Little Sister teahouse. Though commerce was not openly a gentleman’s playground). “Don’t worry, I won’t poison you. Not today, anyway.”
It was during the recitation of the Resentment of Chusan - who wrote this stuff? - that Junshang said, “I am personally offended,” Qinghua knew Junshang’s lazy posture was just for show, but the humor was real.“That you never told me you were a poet, Poet of the Perfumed Hall.”
Since his ‘poetry’ was technically a misplaced communique to another kingdom, Qinghua went with the ‘I am completely embarrassed about this.’ “That’s--”
“It’s an unusual form. Not the standard four character style, which removes the need for precision of thought, but it’s an interesting experiment of rhythm.” Junshang took another sip of wine. “I’m still working through the allusions, but I enjoy the exercise.”
Okay. It wasn’t poetry and Qinghua knew he was a hack. But it was nice to be appreciated, okay? “In fact,” Junshang made a hand motion and the woman playing guqin stopped playing and began to sing.
“Qinghua and My King at Moson Ger. Qinghua of the Perfumed Hall …”
Oh my god.
“It does have the feel of a love song,” Junshang was saying while Qinghua slowly died inside. “Particularly ‘Qinghua on the ocean, the stars are cold.’ It evokes a feeling of absolute loneliness and loss.”
True. Being surrounded by enemies could be quite lonely. But there was musical accompaniment to his misfiled communiques with the Mobei-jun! Music eventually led to dissemination. Which was...not good.
“That being said, I have heard from other mouths that there is a child belonging to Su Xiyan who is in the Orchid Palace under the guardianship of a Consort Shen,“ he waved his hand before Qinghua could speak. “I know this is true. But I want to see him.”
Uhhhh. “Junshang is aware that it is impossible for an intact male to enter the Orchid Palace.”
“I am aware.”
“Perhaps Ambassador Zhuzhi-Lang could arrange a meeting in the Public Courtyard? Consort Shen is a political consort and male, so he is able to meet with outside parties.”
“It is...inconvenient...to attach myself to the Zhou contingent at this time,” Junshang looked pensive. “Though I am also interested in meeting Consort Shen.”
Yeah, you and everyone else.
“That will be difficult to arrange, but this Shang Qinghua can attempt to facilitate this.” The only bright spot in being assigned a two-year (two year!) posting to Lord Yan’s duchy was that he’d be off the hook for this for at least...two years. He took a long swig of wine. It was too depressing.
As the evening wore down (Qinghua would be dragging ass in Court the next day), Junshang became more...sentimental? Qinghua was slightly uncomfortable. “I knew her,” the tenth iteration of Qinghua’s poem - significantly longer and elaborated upon - played in the background. “Xiyan.”
Oh, no no no. The more info stuffed into him was more info to be squeezed out.
“She was the scariest woman I’ve ever met,” Qinghua thought his handler might have passed out, but Junshang sang, “Tianlang on the ocean, the stars are cold.”
Qinghua dropped his bowl.
Oh shit. This motherfucker was the actual Duke of Zhou!
When it seemed that he could not get out of his deployment, Qinghua employed several eunuchs to wheel over his life’s work. About fifty linear feet of notebooks and scraps that would have formed the backbone of his papapa novel legacy.
It was unlikely that any timely communication would make it back to the Capitol in his absence and he did have deadlines.
“I have enough for three further chapters,” he pointed out the notebooks, “And notes for additional work.” The pile was a mess, but he had gathered it in a hurry, waiting until the last minute to be parted from it. “You’ll have to arrange for the prints. Ganyuan can do that for you.”
“You’re not taking him with you?” Shen Yuan had been in the middle of writing letters when Qinghua showed up. By his willingness to avoid the work, it was probable that they were for Shen Jiu.
“I can’t do that to him. He’s a good kid and last time I only survived because,” he motioned to his lower parts. He had never completely divulged the details to Shen Yuan, but his patron didn’t really need (or want) to know.
“What is he going to do while you’re gone?” Qinghua had been waiting for his chance (read: Shen Yuan was a soft touch). He imagined that Shen Yuan probably doted on his servants like he did his Bing-demon and thought it would be good for his plucky protege.
“Well, he’ll probably end up reassigned to the kitchens--”
“No. I’ll have him reassigned here. I only have Yingying and I can take another servant.” Score.
“Promise me you won’t have him tending elephants.”
“I haven’t been very lucky on that front,” Shen Yuan sighed. “But if he can corral Meng Mo, that will be enough. It,” Shen Yuan lowered his voice in disgust, “Eliminated on my…” he pointed to his face. “While I was sleeping.” Qinghua imagined that Binghe probably wiped it off lovingly. (This was true, but Binghe got some in Shen Yuan’s mouth and he nearly died while Binghe cried).
“Well, he’s pretty crafty,” they unpacked his things behind a screen in Shen Yuan’s rooms. Ganyuan was also going to keep an eye on the Consort and relay anything non-confidentially serious to Qinghua’s other operatives.
“So,” Shen Yuan said just as they finished tea. “I put together a short list. Of animals that you may run across on your journey.” It was at least two feet long. What the fuck.
“I can’t make any promises. But if I find a…” he looked down, “ Giant Panda ?! I’ll be sure to let you know.” Oh no. Even Qinghua had never seen a panda and was certain he would run the other way if they met each other in the wild. “Have you thought about a, oh, phoenix or something?”
Shen Yuan narrowed his eyes. “We both know that her ‘phoenix’ was just a sparrowhawk with ostrich feathers glued on. It ended up eating one of her golden monkeys and then flew off.” He sighed. “Such a waste of a golden monkey.” The sparrowhawk went unsaid.
The last thing Shen Yuan needed was a bird of prey.
It was inevitable, really, that within moments of reaching Lord Yan’s Duchy Qinghua found himself thrown over a horse headed North. “Is this necessary?” he asked the very pleased Mobei-jun.
“Qinghua dances with Mobei.”
* General intro greeting
** My king, you do not see or understand my position here. I am surrounded by enemies and I am trying to deal with this issue.
On this edition of new to me:
Absolutely fascinating (to me) conjecture that a great deal of the last Shang King's misdeeds were heaped on after the fact. The Duke of Zhou - brother of King Wen - noted that the last Shang was guilty of six crimes that showed he’d lost the mandate of heaven (though he actually ‘created’ this concept after the fact). In subsequent retellings, the last Shang King’s crimes started to grow. From 6 to 26 by the Warring States Period. The Hans added a further 21 and the Eastern Jin another 13.
They all included ransoming out the Duke of Zhou and the heart-rending decision to rip his own Uncle’s heart out to see if a Sage’s heart “had seven chambers.” Subsequent relations noped the fuck out of trying to reason with the King. Which allowed the not-rebelling-after-the-fact Shang to survive as the Song.
Being related to the King was dangerous.
I can’t help but think that he became the parable of ‘what not to do.’ At least until the Qin Dynasty. Talk about long lasting shame. The last Qin Emperor, Er Shin (二世), was played so hard by his Eunuch, Zhao Gao, that his name is still used to mean ‘spoiled children raised by wealthy parents’ (apparently in Cantonese). Zhao Gao had been a member of the Zhou family, deposed by the Qin.
Not judging, but I’m with Shang Qinghua in not understanding the logic in giving political power to your enemies after emasculating them.
Also, quick note re: last chapter: Consort Daji would probably shank Shen Yuan if she had the opportunity (and I wasn't trying to stick to fluff). I'm telling you, this guy is going to start a war.
Chapter 16: Wherein We Meet Shen Jiu
Thank you everyone who continues to read this. ♥(ˆ⌣ˆԅ).
I appreciate your time and engagement and hope that everyone has a better 2021. ლↂ‿‿ↂლ.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“What is the word from the East?” Peak Lord Shen allowed his trusted body servants to remove his soiled robes and bindings, giving himself a perfunctory wash-up before allowing them to redress him behind the screen he brought for these things. If his eyes flickered towards the bed, it was only a momentary slip in composure.
The campaign against the Western barbarians had been successful this season but there were always loose ends and repairs to oversee. The farms Northeast of Qing Jing had been damaged and needed repair. Shen Jiu’s administrators were competent, his generals blade-sharp, but he was the face of the Shen Peak Lords.
He expected to be here for another month, though he would have preferred Qing Jing. Summer in the West was only just tolerable: a crisp, dry heat that became bitterly cold at night.
“We have received letters from the Capitol, Houye.” Everyone within Shen Jiu’s inner retinue knew that East meant Shen Yuan. Not the Emperor. Not the patchwork of kingdoms and clans and sects between them.
Hours before, the Duke of Shen had shattered the ribcage of the King of the Yellow Xirong with complete equanimity. If his eyes betrayed his worry for his brother, no one said. “Yue Qingyuan?”
“By nightfall, Houye.”
“I will take my letters here,” Shen Jiu motioned towards the platform he’d compromised on. It was getting harder to get off the floor and Xifeng had had it set up before Shen Jiu could complain. Within moments, there was hot water and rations. Shen Jiu ate what his army ate. He lived by Shen practice: Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons and they will follow you into the deepest valley.
As always, Shen Yuan’s (Sun’er in his head) letters were short and inconsequential. He talked about life in the Orchid Palace (a place Shen Jiu had been loath to send him) and meeting the Zhou Ambassador, Zhuzhi-Lang. He had used the Qing Jing allowance to buy coal for his ‘Palace Sisters.’ “Very wise,” Shen Jiu said aloud, unaware that he’d done so. Sun’er’s ‘literary venture’ was apparently very successful, though he had never shown any brilliance in poetry or sent along his work.
Shen Jiu’s own letters were similarly short and inconsequential. It was unlikely they would get to Sun’er unread.
Beneath Shen Yuan’s letter was another. It was also on Sun’er’s paper, but was written in another hand entirely. The first letter from Luo Binghe had come just last year. Shen Jiu expected another request to marry Shen Yuan after his nine-years. Instead, he received a formal letter of introduction from a ‘promising young man’ who had ‘every intention of caring for Shizun for the rest of his life.’
It was obvious that Sun’er’s ‘tutelage’ had created such a child. Only an idiot would call Sun’er their Shizun.
This Luo Binghe has little to offer right now. This Luo Binghe cannot request a meeting until he has distinguished himself and is able to maintain Shizun to the level of which he deserves in any way that Shizun will accept this Luo Binghe.
He had given Shen Jiu a family tree - apparently he was the son of the Emperor and a Zhou Princess - and intricate charts showing that he was auspiciously aligned. Though… many years his brother’s junior.
Shen Jiu was uniquely positioned to know that children could know their hearts and stay the course. The moment he laid eyes on Yue Qingyuan, Shen Jiu knew they were fated. He had been five, only in his first armor. Qingyuan had been a twenty year old potential claimant to Qiong Ding.
While he would ordinarily burn Binghe’s letters with the rest of the requests he received...he didn’t. Qingyuan appreciated the poetry - ‘why did you never write poems for me?’ - and Fifth Aunt had got their hands on Binghe’s guqin compositions. They were awful, but ‘The Verdant Delight of Shizun’s Eyes’ was so catchy that even Shen Jiu found himself humming it.
Once his generals had made their report, Shen Jiu prepared for bed. As always, he was grateful for the health of his people, the prosperity of the land, and the strength his ancestor gave to her line.
That night, Shen Jiu dreamt of the bloodbath of Xiazhai Gorge.
The Southern Xia, who had been encroaching North and swallowing the smaller sects, met the twelve sects of Cang Qiong at Xiazhai. Shen Jiu, 16, commanded the Qing Jing cavalry. The same cavalry that had secured Qingyuan at Qiong Ding and as Duke of Cang Qiong. They were fast, but minimally armored.
The Shen cavalry had come from the East, scouting with the intention to meet up with the Mu, Qing, and Liu infantry. Instead, they ran headlong into the entirety of the Xia army. Which lay like a wall between Shen Jiu and the Cang Qiong army. The Xia had never come so far North and they outnumbered Cang Qiong 3:1. ‘They’ll be slow. If we get ahead of them, we can try to hold them at Xiazhai and wait for Yue Qingyuan.’
The Shen cavalry spent three gruelling days harassing and hampering the Xia forces from the high ground of the narrow Xiazhai Gorge, employing every trick in the guerrilla warfare playbook to hold their position when the horses couldn’t navigate the heights. Shen Jiu’s elite Guqishi were entirely female. They knew the temper of their enemy and what would happen to them if they were caught. ‘We are ghosts,’ Shen Jiu reminded them.
Despite their greater numbers, the Xia didn’t know who they were fighting. Where a body fell, nothing was ever found. The Shen had carried the dead - at great cost - to a natural cave and placed jade tablets over their eyes and mouths.
All Shen warriors carried the items necessary for a good death.
On the third day, the bronze shields of Cang Qiong appeared. Qingyuan had gone down to his knees when he found Shen Jiu. ‘I thought I would never see you again.’
‘Unlikely. If you had been any slower, I would have returned as a vengeful ghost and cut off your dick.’ When they rushed to help him, Shen Jiu was in pretty rough shape, he made them care for his soldiers first. ‘How can I take aid before my people?’
When the Liu War God’s Heir, Liu Qingge, castigated Shen Jiu for using ‘underhanded tactics,’ he stabbed the man’s right hand to the table and cursed him for 18 generations.
That, Shen Jiu remembered fondly.
When he woke up, Qingyuan was watching him. “I can’t believe Xifeng actually got you in a bed.”
“It was already up. I didn’t want to waste the effort.” If she hadn’t taken an arrow to the shoulder, Shen Jiu would have made her run laps around the Peak. “What time did you get in?”
“Last night. I caught a few hours of rest, but wanted to get to you.” Shen Jiu’s smiles were fragile, secret things. Qingyuan surprised them out of him more than he was willing to admit.
“Such haste when I’ve already done all the work. Typical.” Shen Jiu extended a hand. “Help me up.” His body was stiff and blue beneath his sleeping robes.
Qingyuan wasn’t a twenty year old penitent anymore. He was a thoughtful, if a bit too cautious, Duke with enough years on him to lend confidence and gravity. Where they feared Shen Jiu, people respected Qingyuan. Shen Jiu didn’t care what people thought about him. He was content with Qing Jing and had no aspirations of greatness. He did care, very much, about what people thought of Qingyuan. He had spent three decades bolstering his husband's reputation, lands, wealth, and strength. Theirs was a gloved fist. Shen Jiu the fist and Qingyuan softening the blow.
“Let me bring breakfast to you.” Breakfast was...a feast of dry, warm food and fine pale tea.
“What is all this?”
“Humor me, I’m an old man.”
“You have always been like this!” Qingyuan forced a bowl in his hands and was already heaping it with all these things .
“Then I am sorry for...ruining your tack and… hot water with sweetmeats and palatable tea.” Qingyuan’s eyes were unrepentant, black and fringed by long lashes. He had learned long ago that Shen Jiu was weak to his teasing. Qingyuan was the only one audacious enough to tease the Qing Jing Peak Lord and it was too late to chastise him now.
“I will make an exception,” Shen Jiu narrowed his eyes - the same pale green as his brother’s - and dug into the bowl. “Just this once.” It was always ‘just this once,’ with Qingyuan. It was the only way Shen Jiu could justify it.
The generals gave their report and brought in the head of the Xirong commander as Shen Jiu requested. He removed the fine pearl earrings, washed them and his hands, and then waved it away. “Put it on a pike with the others,” he directed. “A head for every one of ours lost.” Completely unperturbed by the sight, he handed the earrings to Qingyuan. “For my dowry.”
It was an old joke between them. At 5, Shen Jiu had given Qingyuan the jade sigil at his belt as ‘dowry.’ Though Qingyuan was actually marrying into the Shen (he had, after all, come begging for an army), he accepted the token with the utmost ceremony. As he’d only known Shen Jiu for ten minutes, he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t be stabbed. He wore it still.
Qingyuan later gave Shen Jiu a pair of very fine Xirong ponies. Shen Jiu thought he’d got the better deal.
The first time Shen Jiu was kidnapped, it was by a Yue official who had backed the wrong claimant to the throne. He capitalized on the man’s weakness: unwillingness to kill a child. Two weeks later, Qingyuan and his men found Shen Jiu on the back of a bloody horse, knees pinned to its flanks. Qingyuan had been oddly emotional ...which shocked Shen Jiu. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I was worried about you,’ he’d said. No one had ever said that to him. The Qing Jing knew he would return with absolute certitude. Either alive or as an ancestor.
‘Here,’ a flustered Shen Jiu said as he opened a saddle bag and gave Qingyuan the gold seals he’d collected from the men he’d killed. ‘Add this to my dowry.’
Qingyuan gave him the Xia Capitol. Eventually.
“We have to repair the wall. We’ve lost a lot of livestock this year,” he decided as Qingyuan continued to put things into his bowl. The livestock in question having come from the miles of grassland the Shen had chiseled away from the Xirong for hundreds of years. “I’ll have to take both Huangse princesses,” he sighed over the yellow-haired barbarians. Such things were so troublesome. “They come with horses and salt and some peace. So it’s a good deal.”
Qingyuan laughed. “I’m getting too old to remember all your concubines.”
“What about yours?” Shen Jiu arched a brow. He had demanded two sons from Qingyuan...who refused to deliver the normal way. Instead, he discharged his stable of inherited concubines and found two ‘nephews’ who may or may not have been actual Yue but conveniently had no living family. Yue Xiudi was a very capable Qiong Ding steward and Yue Xiuer was often at Shen Jiu’s side. Sleeping in the very next tent, even. They both had Shens as First Consorts. Xiuer’s was Shen Jiu’s current heir, Fengqing.
“I’m getting too old to remember mine as well.” The sentimental idiot smiled over his first grade tea leaves. It really was too much work to comment. Shen Jiu could tell by the taste that Qingyuan had given him a pain brew instead of that fine white tea… and knew that Shen Jiu’s face was thin enough that he couldn’t say anything.
They passed the clouds and rain under the heavy blankets that Qingyuan insisted on and the brazier Qingyuan insisted on. Shen Jiu was not too bruised nor Qingyuan too old for the sort of thing husbands shared after months apart.
Shen Jiu thought Qingyuan had already fallen asleep, but he said, “You did not drink your tea.”
The silence pulled long while Shen Jiu collected his thoughts. He had always been decisive...but he was not alone in this. “Is it okay?” Very, very carefully, the warm palm of Qingyuan’s hand touched Shen Jiu’s abdomen, his forehead moved against Shen Jiu’s cheek.
“Yes.” Shen Jiu realized that the wetness on his skin was from Qingyuan. He really was too sentimental. “I love you.”
The best Shen Jiu could offer was his fingers smoothing back the fine hairs over Qingyuan’s ear...and the quiet, secret smile he shared with the darkness.
So, we finally meet Shen Jiu. Who, thankfully, is unaware of Shen Yuan's Capitol hijinks. But for how long? I had no idea what was going to happen when I starting writing this, but I think Qingyuan is a serious boss. I've never cared much for him in fanfic (and we only see Shen Yuan's version in the book), but I like this version.
Nerding out for a moment. I was listing to the Allusionist Podcast (ep 6 'Writing on the Wall') yesterday and heard about this:
In 1925, the archeologist Leonard Woolley was excavating a Babylonian palace in Iraq (formerly the Kingdom of Ur), when he found something strange. Dozens of artifacts predating the Palace by hundreds - even thousands - of years. All grouped together.
What he found was the oldest (known) museum in human history. Clay cylinder drums with labels in three different languages were museum labels (which are, ironically, called 'tombstones'). This was the Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum cultivated by Princess Ennigalbi who was a 6th century BCE antiquities collector. And, may I say, bad ass.
Some of the artifacts were from the 20th century BCE. Some were previously collected by King Nebuchadnezzar.
It is...so cool.
Chapter 17: Mountain Without Its Falcon
Mountain Without Its Falcon (2020)
Historial * Exciting * War
Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù’s directorial debut is set against the backdrop of the crumbling Zhou Dynasty where two knight-errants face family treachery, predestined love, and the ultimate betrayal.
Starring: Nie Mingjue, Xie Lian, Wen Ruohan
These future chapters just write themselves. I was forced to watch delicious Joseon zombies for this :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Lan Zhan! You have to watch this with me!” Doctor Lan - who had called himself that at a Gala he’d dragged Wei Ying to when someone gave him lip - didn’t even look away from his magazine.
He was reading the Economist.
There was no way that the Economist was better than a white-washed Journey to the West. You could trash talk it! You could throw popcorn! The socially distanced man’s Rocky Horror.
If Rocky Horror had been based on one of the ‘Four Great Classic Novels’ of Chinese literature and now had a blond Sun Wukong.
Lan Zhan had no idea what Rocky Horror was. The last time Wei Ying threw popcorn at Wei Ying’s own 55” flat screen (he was kind of a filmmaker), Lan Zhan passive-aggressively vacuumed the kernels up with the hand vacuum. Right in front of the screen! ‘You’re going to break it,’ he’d whined. It was his first apartment and the hand vac was something his friend Steve’s mother had ordered off TV in the 80s. “You’re really not going to watch this with me?”
“It took me an hour to find something we could both watch.” This was not entirely true. Wei Ying had quickly skipped over ‘Inside the Museum Stacks’ before Lan Zhan saw it and they were sucked down the hell of dry documentaries and Lan Zhan’s ‘that is not true.’ Because he was checking everything on his phone. With one, last, mutinous glance at the curvaceous Sha Wujing, he returned to scrolling.
Somehow, between a delicious Joseon Era zombie series (to watch) and Karen’s Home for the Holidays (what does his metadata look like?!), he came upon the sequel (?) to We Rise From Phoenix Ash. Hold the press.
Mountain Without Its Falcon (2020)
Historial * Exciting * War
Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù’s directorial debut is set against the backdrop of the crumbling Zhou Dynasty where two knight-errants face family treachery, predestined love, and the ultimate betrayal.
Starring: Nie Mingjue, Xie Lian, Wen Ruohan
S1: E1 “A good family humbled into dust”
Yue Qingyuan (Nie Mingjue), under the threat of inter-family politics, must flee his home while pursued by a tyrannical uncle (Wen Ruohan).
Lan Zhan had panned the fuck out of the drama. But. He had watched every single episode (he used Wei Ying’s account and hadn’t yet realized that Wei Ying could see his viewing history).
This was called the Mountain Without Its Falcon. Nie Mingjue was cast as Yue Qingyuan.
It was good to see a vehicle for Mingjue who was highly underrated. He had, after all, stunted for Donnie Yen’s crew and was a Wing Chun Kung Fu Grandmaster. Then who the hell was Shen Jiu? He didn’t recognize the actor, but a quick Wiki search said Xie Lian (he was a he) was more than an idol. He had a background in Shaolin Kung Fu.
It wasn’t the first time - nor the hundredth time - that there was a new Qijiu film. They were as thick as BBC Jane Austens. But this was...the most wushu wuxia version Wei Ying had ever seen. Holy shit. They were going there.
He was here for this.
From what he could tell, there was no continuity from the first series. Was it a sequel? A prequel? There was only the promise...forty episodes of unmitigated angst with ten episodes of glorious catharsis. Forty episodes of fights. “Lan Zhan.”
“Hrm?” Did he not see how Wei Ying was shook?
“There is a sequel/prequel to We Rise from Phoenix Ash.”
Lan Zhan stilled, one page of the Economist held between his fingers. He said, very carefully, “Why would I want to watch that?”
“Well. I’m going to watch this Zhou Era drama,” Wei Ying pretended to not care what Lan Zhan decided. “You can read your old man magazine.”
Wait for it.
The opening scene was of Yue Qingyuan (Nie Mingjue) standing in a clearing with thousands of arrows arcing through the sky towards him. He was absolutely going to bite it Jet Li Hero-style. This was Yue Qingyuan’s death scene. Qingyuan closed his eyes as the narration said:
There do I see my father; There do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning. They do call to me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of my ancestors, where the filial may live forever...
The cushion dipped beside him and he was pretty sure Lan Zhan had jumped the couch. That was faster than he’d expected. The screen went black and then a younger Yue Qingyuan - played by (quick IMDB search)...Lan Sizhui (no relation) - was running through the mountains of Qiong Ding. There were dogs behind him. “There was no--”
Wei Ying put a hand over his mouth. “Nope.”
The boy stumbled, but the production used wire work qīnggōng to swing the actor away from the snarling pursuers. “Neatly done,” Wei Ying said to himself. “That’s really hard--”
“Nope.” Lan Zhan put a hand over his mouth. Wei Ying licked it and Lan Zhan flicked him with his left hand. Wei Ying, who graduated from the Jiang Cheng School of Childhood Squabbling, grabbed his hand. With a fluid movement, Lan Zhan had changed the balance of couch war using his not-entirely-secret Tai Chi skills. He had both of Wei Ying’s wrists in his hands.
“Is it amusing, trifling with weak hands?”
“It’s very amusing,” Wei Ying gave him a cheeky grin. “But, believe me, my hands are as weak as my moves are...which means not at all.”
Lan Zhan snorted. “Shameless. You’ve had thirteen years of generic Kung Fu. If you practiced, you would be able to break free.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying looked at him, not moving his wrists. “You are going to miss Qingyuan’s fight against Third Uncle.”
He didn’t release Wei Ying’s wrists. “Wen Ruohan? Again?”
Wei Ying gave him a look of absolute satisfaction. “I knew you watched We Rise from Phoenix Ash.” Lan Zhan’s ears were pinking. He leaned closer. “The whole thing.”
“Yes. I watched We Rise from Phoenix Ashes. But I am not ashamed. You know who should be ashamed? The decision to link a very poorly researched Emperor Luo vehicle with the Tang Dynasty Qijiu tale. As if Qijiu has anything to do with Luo Binghe…”
Wei Ying turned the closed captioning on.
The next morning, Wei Ying was crying as Yue Qingying and Shen Jiu did the ‘we meet under unfavorable circumstances’ ala the brutal Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi fight in Crouching Tiger. It was primal. It was beautiful.
Ten Red Bulls - fallen soldiers to this war against sleep - were on the table. His eyes were so crusted over, he didn’t know if he would ever blink again.
Lan Zhan came out of the bathroom in one of the button-downs he’d brought over when they decided to social distance bubble, smelling like the last squirt of Wei Ying’s ‘Honey I washed the kids’ Lush body gel. “You have a problem,” he said, like he hadn’t stayed up until two AM to watch Episode 25 (‘I would rather betray the world’): A misunderstanding perpetuated by a Qi deviation causes a breakdown of Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu’s bond.
“I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he paused the stream. “I don’t know who this director...Fragrant ink copper smell-- Lan Zhan what do these characters mean?” He pressed his phone screen at Lan Zhan’s face.
“Lou Wei, you need some sleep.”
“I need food,” Wei Ying made a production of falling back on the couch cushions. He could no longer see Lan Zhan’s face. “Oh, since you’re already up…” He was so incredibly shameless. “I left a grocery list for you.” He listened to the footsteps and the crinkle of Lan Zhan picking up the paper.
“You are…” Whatever he was going to say was cut off by a small laugh. “Are you actually going to eat spinach?” Wei Ying had written the whole thing in seal script - making up some of it because there really weren’t nachos in ancient China - and knew Lan Zhan would do it. Well, might do it.
“Oh, that’s for you. So you don’t eat all the lumpia Steve’s mom is making me.”
It was suspiciously quiet but for the electronic tap of Lan Zhan texting. “Huh,” he said finally. “Looks like those lumpia are all vegetarian.”
Wei Ying shot up and tumbled off the couch,“Lan Zhan! Did you just pork block me?!”
There do I see my father; There do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning. They do call to me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of my ancestors, where the filial may live forever...
As the arrows blocked the sun, Yue Qingyuan stood with the Xuan Su sword at his side. He closed his eyes. He sees the boy running through the forests of Cang Qiong. He sees the soft cheek of Shen Jiu. He sees Qiong Ding Palace in ashes.
The camera pans away and Shen Jiu is in the lamellar armor and ribbons of a general, kneeling and bareheaded. He bows northwards towards the woods of Cang Qiong. He pulls out Xiu Ya (a dagger in this version) poisoned with Without a Cure.
The camera fades to black.
A dead man begs you to remember; a warrior's ultimate act is to lay down his sword.
Nothing serious. Just crying for the delicious lumpia social distancing has taken from my life.
Also. This is the movie/series I want to see. The cinematography would be similar to Shadow (2019), dark and broody.
Chapter 18: Secrets
Shen Yuan shares secrets with Binghe and bonds are made.
“Consort Shen’s charge is old enough to spread their wings, no?” Master Hua, a first? second? cousin to the Duke whose sigil he had called attention to no less that thirty times in the past hour, said. It was a very strange thing to say. Apropos of nothing they had been previously discussing.
The aforementioned Binghe was elbows deep in the astrological phenomena he was so fond of. The Royal Astrologer had been honored to host him and Binghe had returned with armfuls of books that he was copying for his own use (that Ganyuan was copying for Binghe’s use). Shen Yuan bought him a ‘crystal lens’ with the firm promise that he would not use it during the day. ‘As it’s also used for concentrating sunlight to start fires, it’s best if Binghe only uses it at night.’
Per Binghe, some sort of celestial alignment (?) was shortly to occur and he was very excited about it.
“Does Master Hua refer to my disciple?” He had been using the title more and more lately. To dissuade gossip that Binghe was his son (see: lack of biological knowledge). Binghe was more of a...roommate. If a very excitable and overprotective one. “My Binghe,” Shen Yuan’s soft voice was the main reason everyone thought he was Binghe’s parent, “Is too young to leave.” Would this Lord put a child out in the streets?
“But certainly, your disciple’s education would be…” Master Hua floundered, realizing just a bit too late that any disparagement on Binghe’s education would be a disparagement on Shen Yuan’s education of said disciple. In his (meager) defense, it was highly unusual for a Royal Consort to direct the education of one of the Emperor’s sons beyond a certain age. It was just that Shen Yuan thought that age was closer to forty.
“It would be..?”
“Is everything alright, Shizun?” Binghe asked from the platform Shen Yuan had had made for him in the courtyard. From the ground, the rooves obscured his view of the night sky and this perch was quite lovely at night. Binghe had dragged up cushions and they sat in the box with tea and the sweet rice porridge Yingying knew Shen Yuan liked. In the moonlight - it was a very clear night - Binghe was his sweet bun with eyes full of stars (literally, in this case) and concern on his face.
Shen Yuan patted his head. “It’s nothing, Binghe. Shizun is just tired. Tell Shizun more about the vermillion birds and...willows?” Honestly, Shen Yuan couldn’t make heads or tails out of the glass. The stars were lovely but wholly inscrutable to anyone but the priests...and now, Binghe.
Binghe nattered on about symbols and mansions and Shen Yuan watched him, elbow on the table and his cheek in his hand.
The sky was black silk studded with diamonds. But Binghe was the brightest.
“That boy,” the aforementioned Binghe was currently sketching the landscape of the Public Garden (but actually spying). “Is old enough to learn proper things and not trail around Consort Shen’s belt-strings.” Minister Jin - the powerful Duke of Lanling - said absently, stroking his narrow (and Shen Yuan suspected perfumed by the drifting scent of roses) beard.
It was very hot. Certainly under yards of layered silk with only a young servant to hold the umbrella. The Courtyard Eunuch had brought out a low table for taking tea and not even the hot bitter tea they’d been served kept Shen Yuan from visibly perspiring.
The Minister had not even thought to sustain his guest with sustenance. Not even one...sugared...fruit. Not a crumb.
Shen Yuan was Not-In-A-Good-Mood. These were his belt-strings in question. His belt-strings and his Binghe. “This one was not aware that the Minister had been invited to any intimate knowledge of this one’s belt-strings.” Shen Yuan’s innocent expression was a well practiced one. (‘No, I did not eat the tanghulu.’ ‘This pheasant followed me home, Shen Jiu.’)
Minister Jin, only just realizing his misstep, took an arrow to the heart. “This one did not--”
After their bath and while Shen Yuan worked the oil through Binghe’s thick hair, Shen Yuan argued with himself. Should he..? Ought he..? Would it be alright if..? How much would Shen Jiu kill him if..? “Shizun, is everything alright?”
“It’s just that Binghe has noticed that Shizun is very quiet tonight.” The heat of Binghe’s body was almost too warm in the room, though the screen doors to the courtyard were thrown open and Ganyuan’s ingenious fan invention was moving the air around them (worked by a rope that Ganyuan manually pulled; his right arm was several magnitudes larger than his left).
“Shizun is just tired,” Shen Yuan said, tugging lightly (fondly) on Binghe’s hair. “It’s no matter.” He absently said, “Binghe is such a good boy.” Binghe preened. “Ganyuan, you may leave. It is late.” The fan wobbled a bit as the grateful Eunuch quit for the day. “You may go as well, Yingying.”
This was highly unusual as Yingying was often integral to the hair washing process. Thus the reason for Yingying’s delicate, “Should this one prepare tea, Master Shen?” He had been out of sorts lately and she worried.
“No, that will not be necessary.” When they were gone, Shen Yuan said, “It is said that when telling secrets on the road, one must look to the bushes.” He finger combed Binghe’s hair and made short work of braiding it. Ganyuan had been very successful in ‘taming’ Meng Mo (or at least caging the thing) and Shen Yuan made sure it was too far to eavesdrop.
Later, Binhe would write ‘When telling secrets on the road, one must look to the bushes for a good life.’
“Shizun would like to share something with you that this one has shared with no one outside of Qing Jing.” He had Binghe’s complete and utter attention. Standing, Shen Yuan beckoned Binghe into the courtyard where Binghe ran to shake off Bingbing and shake out the cushions before Shen Yuan could sit. They were both lightly dressed, but it was a warm evening. A good evening for secrets.
“Shizun can share anything with his Binghe,” Binghe reminded him. If he’d had a tail, it would have been wagging.
Shen Yuan’s stomach eased. Having made the decision, he released his misgivings entirely. When decided, Shen Yuan’s motto went, the course is set. “Does Binghe have any interest in martial training?”
“Can Binghe have a sword, Shizun?”
“No.” Binghe deflated slightly, but was still buzzing with excitement. Shen Yuan tapped his fingers on the table. Binghe is so young! “Shizun knows Binghe has somehow picked up Cang Qiong,” he said in Cang Qiong. He was certain that Shang Qinghua had taught him. Another dark mark on the crafty fake eunuch.
“In Shizun’s home,” Shen Yuan continued in the dialect. “There is a way of study that is taught amongst the ---.” Binghe tilted his head in confusion at the word but did not ask and Shen Yuan did not elaborate. “It is the ---.” Binghe said nothing, so Shen Yuan assumed that he had picked up the words. “It is one hundred forms that are necessary for proficiency in ---. Shizun will teach you these forms, but Binghe must promise absolute secrecy.”
“Binghe would never tell Shizun’s secrets.”
“Shizun will show you.” Though Shizun was a little rusty. His first year at the Orchid Palace, he had been a bit more strict with the forms, always afraid that Shen Jiu was going to come around the corner and yell at him. But the means of indolence - sweets, a comfortable bed, and leisure time - had made him rusty.
The Forms were a Yin-focused style of unarmed foundation movements. While Qing Jing training was strict, the forms were fluid. Adaptable. Depending on terrain, military size, and a thousand other concerns.
But the first Form was controlling one’s breath. This Shen Yuan was proficient in. He closed his eyes and breathed in...and out. Feeling the Qi circulation from his dantian throughout his whole body. Convinced Binghe was ‘studying,’ he was completely unaware of Binghe’s adoration. When he opened his eyes, he said, “Now, let Shizun show Binghe how to breathe.”
Liu-shibo unveiled the candy floss Shen Yuan loved before he said, “If Consort Shen is going to continue to coddle his disciple,” Shen Yuan wondered if using candy floss as a garrote was a waste of good candy. He decided it was. “He must begin learning the martial forms of a gentleman. He’s already older than this Qingge was when this one started and Consort Shen’s favoritism will make him a target.”
A cold chill went up his spine. Shen Yuan had never considered that.
“He is safe with Consort Shen now, but he won’t be in the Orchid Palace forever.”
Liu-shibo was one of the few people in the Capitol who did not mince words (if he could find them). It was one of the reasons he was a good general...and sometimes on the outs with the Emperor (or more precisely, the Prime Minister). To him, a fig was a fig. In that respect, he had much in common with Shen Jiu.
Shen Yuan looked into the distance and said, “Binghe is so young.” The aforementioned little bun had begged to come with Shen Yuan after Liu Qingge’s request had been accepted, fat tears on great display. Shen Yuan had almost given in, but Madam Wu invited him (told him to come) to her rooms to ‘look at a book.’ Binghe - and Shen Yuan - would lose face if he didn’t go.
For his part, Qingge was surprised that Shen Yuan’s disciple had not come trailing behind. For the past six or seven years, the boy had been stickier than the posted Eunuchs. Tactically, Binghe was a weakness that might be used against Shen Yuan, of whom he was...fond. His fondness, however, usually came across as high-handed, almost paternal, speech and actions. He knew his failings, but had always hoped that Shen Yuan would warm to him in a way he could not quite understand himself. For now, it was enough that he did not frown when Qingge referred to himself more intimately.
Nonetheless, he would never let harm befall Shen Yuan and had never understood the easy way Shen Jiu had allowed him to leave Qing Jing.
For his part, Shen Yuan thought: My bun is so young. What if Binghe were injured?! His mind filled with images of a tiny Binghe laid out on the bed, little koff koffs as he looked at Shen Yuan. ‘The sword was too heavy. Remember me, Shizun.’
“Let this Qingge make you an offer,” Liu-shibo said into the pregnant silence. “This Qingge will send this one's best disciple. Consort Shen may supervise Binghe’s training until Consort Shen is satisfied with the means.”
Shen Yuan was too thin-faced to admit that he was a helicopter-not-parent. But he was.
True to his word, Liu-shibo’s disciple, Yang Yixuan, reported to service the following week with Liu-shibo. Master Yang was a young and serious man who was far too qualified to be teaching Binghe how to use a sword.
Shen Yuan stress ate a whole plate of sticky buns and reached for another when Liu-shibo said, “Get up, Consort Shen. This Qingge will make Consort Shen useful.” The reproachful look Binghe threw at Liu Qingge for addressing himself so casually was missed entirely by Shen Yuan. Master Yang used the opening to smack him on the butt with his sword.
Liu-shibo’s ‘useful’ meant handing Shen Yuan a bow and a quiver of arrows with, “This Qingge will teach Consort Shen how to use a bow.”
It is at this point in the narrative that it should be noted that Shen Yuan was, in fact, proficient in archery. Many tears had been cried and birds (accidentally) sacrificed learning the skill. He was by no means gifted or exemplary, but he was from Qing Jing. “Lucky shot,” Liu-shibo noted when Shen Yuan hit the bullseye on his first draw.
He was many years untried, but his fingers knew the motions. “Yes,” Shen Yuan said with nervous laughter. “That was a lucky shot, indeed.”
No one knew that Shen Yuan had any martial abilities. He had only ever ‘played’ with Second Consort Hu. After her untimely sacrifice to the meteoric rise of Consort Daji, he had found it politic to not even ‘play.’
So, Shen Yuan’s great concentration at not being a successful archer was interpreted as his great concentration to actually hit the straw-filled boss.
Because of Master Yang’s reputation (he had been essential to the defense of Lanlin some years ago), the presence of the Bai Zhan War God, and the promise of Shen Yuan, they had upgraded to one of the hundreds of unused courts - Qingtong Lawn - and had begun to draw a crowd. Most of Shen Yuan’s (and Liu-shibo’s and Master Yang’s) prospective suitors had access to the Capitol, the Emperor’s (or Prime Minister’s or Consort Daji’s) ear, and time enough to picnic at Qingtong Lawn.
The loss of face due to Shen Yuan’s charade...was too embarrassing! Particularly as Binghe had taken to running over to offer small encouragements. “Binghe must learn,” Shen Yuan told him after the fourth such ‘visit’ in the past hour. “Shizun will take Binghe’s words to heart.”
“Surely Liu-shibo has better things to do than watch Consort Shen flounder,” he had suggested as he continued to be poor at the sport.
“No. This Qingge is at the liberty to teach Consort Shen.” Shen Yuan was not unaware that Liu-shibo kept them from getting too close to the picnickers. Several of the ladies had begun to throw flowers and other love tokens at them. It was very shameless. When he said so, Liu-shibo sighed. “This is... not unexpected. At the Discussion Conferences,” the martial tournaments and politicking that happened bi-annually, “The flowers fall like rain. It is quite troublesome.”
Shen Yuan thought they were of much the same mind and smiled. Qingge took a step back in surprise. There was a general commotion amongst the viewers and a jade token hit Shen Yuan in the throat. He was more startled than injured and stepped back and tripped on his robes. Qingge reflexively caught him. It was...too embarrassing. “Are you alright?” Liu-shibo asked, all pretenses of propriety forgotten.
Shen Yuan, who was flushed with embarrassment, said,“This one is fine, Liu-shibo. It is a wonder that Liu-shibo ever survived the adoration of these Discussion Conferences.”
Someone fainted due to the romantic scene.
Binghe had started to run over, but had been caught by the collar by Master Yang. “Shizun!” He cried with great emotion and Shen Yuan closed his eyes praying that he could melt into the earth.
Minister Liu, who had arranged the use of the Qingtong Lawn, was admonishing a group of young women for ‘nearly killing one of the Royal Consorts.’ Umbrellas were overturned and tea spilled.
In the melee, Qingge easily swept Shen Yuan up and began to walk away. “What are you doing?” Shen Yuan’s politeness had also slipped.
“It was time for a tactical retreat,” he said matter of factly.
Acceptance seemed the better part of valor. It was only Liu-shibo. “This one could have walked.” Being held by Liu-shibo was too embarrassing! Was it possible to die from mortification? Shen Yuan would surely learn.
“Yes. But now Consort Shen is forced to answer this one’s questions.”
“This one is curious as to why Consort Shen would pretend to be very bad at archery.”
Shen Yuan barely held his innocent face. “This one has no idea what Liu-shibo means.”
“This one purposely did not restring Consort Shen’s bow this morning. Usually, this one sets it for a 15 pound draw weight, well within the means of a child. The bow was strung at 40 pounds and yet Consort Shen was able to hit the same wild shots they have been hitting for weeks now. The ‘wild aims’ may be more believable if Consort Shen didn’t consistently hit the same places.”
“There are many things this Qingge is not good at,” he looked at Shen Yuan meaningfully. “But assessing the abilities of his soldiers is not one of them.”
Shen Yuan bit his lip. “Will you tell?”
“No. Consort Shen’s reasons are his own. But,” he set Shen Yuan down with some reluctance, his scarred hand visible. “By whatever means, Consort Shen must actually improve their aim. Otherwise, this Qingge will seem to be a poor instructor.”
“I thought Shizun had died!” Binghe said when he finally found Shen Yuan. He clutched Shen Yuan’s waist with passionate distress, knocking the air out of him.
“Binghe,” Shen Yuan croaked. “Shizun is fine.” Though in threat of death by Binghe’s Affection ™ , not to be confused with Binghe’s Tears ™ which were now making their appearance. “Shizun assures you that it would take more than a token to injure Shizun.” More like a 90 pound Binghe.
“Master Qingge took Shizun away...and...and Shizun is Binghe’s special person and…” In imminent threat of hyperventilation, Shen Yuan took hold of the snotty face.
“Breathe with Shizun.”
When he was calm enough, Shen Yuan washed his face and had Yingying bring them tea (after she fussed over Shen Yuan). “It is important for Binghe to control his emotions or they will become a weapon against him. Shizun cannot always protect his Binghe. Binghe must learn how to protect himself.”
That night, Binghe wrote, ‘Binghe must become strong enough to protect Shizun for a good life.’
“Much improved,” Liu-shibo said as Shen Yuan’s arrow grazed the outside of the target. Their audience was much reduced - certain no one was throwing anything - and Minister Liu gave a hearty,
“Excellent Consort Shen!”
“This Qingge must leave the Capitol,” he said later as servants gathered up the detritus of practice. “For business. Will Consort Shen allow this Qingge to resume lessons upon this one’s return?”
“Of course.” Shen Yuan found Qingge pleasant when not trying to make small talk over tea (or Binghe). He was very knowledgeable about weapons and they had discussed commissioning one for Shen Yuan. It would not be as excellent as one from Qing Jing but sending for one would raise too many questions with Shen Jiu.
“At this rate of improvement, Consort Shen will be ready for the Hunt.” Shen Yuan could not read his mood. Liu-shibo kept things close to his chest.
“This one has never been invited.” Thank goodness. While the prospect of running into a cloud leopard or a panda! was very exciting, the idea of actually killing something was not pleasant even with servants to field dress it. Shen Yuan had heard that sometimes the prey were slaves (non-Huaxia) and was glad to be well away from such sport.
There were some - mostly the jealous - who thought that Qing Jing was only just inside the Empire and very recently Qiong (barbarians) themselves.
“Bullseye, Shizun!” Binghe called when Shen Yuan’s arrow soundly hit the target. In the privacy of his own courtyard and surrounded by Binghe, Yingying, and Ganyuan (who was running arrows back), he was free to do as he pleased. Here, Shen Yuan was freer, younger and everyone smiled more.
So Shen Yuan practiced ‘tricks’ with his bow and Binghe showed his improving sword skills while Yingying and Ganyuan looked on. It was a fine evening and Shen Yuan allowed Binghe to have some lychee wine in careful moderation.
He was swinging a heavy wooden sword around.
“It is good that Shizun only shares his secrets with his Binghe,” the slightly soused boy said. “Binghe will only share Binghe’s secrets with Shizun.” As these ‘secrets’ included the thriving fighting cricket training Binghe was doing on the side, Shen Yuan agreed.
“Then this Shizun will tell Binghe a secret,” Shen Yuan teased. “Shizun’s Binghe’s version of the Nest of the Magpies is...not good.”
“Shizun!” Binghe cried out, pleased to be teased and in no way offended to be ‘not good’ at the guqin. Everyone knew that Binghe was ‘not good’ at the guqin. Shen Yuan had accepted that he had failed Binghe in that respect. “This Binghe will tell Shizun a secret. This Binghe knows that Shizun stole loquats from the Concubine Level 6 garden.”
Shen Yuan blushed but shamelessly said, “Lies!” Yingying, who could corroborate this, smiled.
“Shizun knows that Binghe spilled ink on Shizun’s hair ribbon and hid it in a vase!”
They went on that for a long time. There were really no secrets between Shen Yuan and Binghe.
As per usual, liberties have been taken.
Some terminology notes:
Qiong = 'illiterate' (ie barbarians)
Huaxia = 'literate' (part of the empire)
SY is using a composite (laminated) bow, which was already in use during the Shang Period. These would be made from separate strips of bamboo (or other wood) glued together or bound using silk. Some had horn or gold embellishments. They seemed to be similar in draw weights to the Korean Gakgung. Mongol bows (much, much later) had a draw weight of hundreds of pounds. Far more powerful than the longbows that won Agincourt for the English.
Re: Shen Yuan and slaves/sacrifice. Human sacrifice was normal (accepted) during the Shang period per the Oracle Bones and later Zhou writing. Neither Shen Yuan nor Binghe would be surprised by ritual human sacrifices. In fact, they did attend religious rites where sacrifice did occur. Keren Wang is a Penn State PhD who studies ritual sacrifice: Oracle Bone ritual sacrifice presentation.
By the Han period, this would eventually peter out. It is believed that the terracotta warriors were a transitional period between actual human sacrifices and symbolic sacrifices.
On that cheerful note...
Chapter 19: Rosebud
There's a new horse in Shen Yuan's papapa stable. (Really, it's not as dirty as it looks...)
If anyone has a punny pseudonym for Yingying (like Liu Mingyan’s) send it my way in the comments. I am not clever enough :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Yingying waited until Young Master Binghe and Master Shen were out to begin to sort and clean the detritus of her charges.
Young Master was careless with his things, mostly due to haste. He was always throwing off robes or ripping off hair ribbons or banging around with his wooden sword or dropping his ‘planetary maps.’ It started in the public rooms and gradually ended up at one end of Master Shen’s sleeping quarters where Binghe, cut adrift from years of kicking Master Shen in the back, kept what could accurately be called a ‘nest.’
Master Shen was more careful, but very casual. He took more care with his things but didn’t fuss over anything. Which was good because almost everything he had had been wronged by Binghe at some point in his time with Master Shen. He only needed neatening and daily cleaning.
While Master Shen was expected to have dozens of servants by dint of his position, he had only ever kept Yingying. She took exceptional pride in her position and fussed whenever one of the general servants were called to assist with anything. Most Consorts would have dozens of servants. Consort Daji had four alone who moved her sleeves! But Master Shen had always treated her with the utmost of respect in all their dealings, gave her complete control of the household, and even offered benefits! She had every fifth day off and access to a court physician. Master Shen paid for all travel costs when she visited her family during (forced) time off and always sent her off with gifts. She was able to handpick and train her temporary replacements during the times she couldn’t personally protect and serve Master Shen.
Despite the ever looming possibility of being savaged (or shat on) by a wild beast, it went without saying that everyone wanted to serve Master Shen.
On this particular day, Master Shen had sent Master Shang’s servant, Ganyuan, out to run errands while Master and Young Master were visiting the Concubine Level 6 koi pond. Master Shen had got his hands on a ‘solid silver’ fish somewhere and they were trying it out. It was...unlikely...that they’d have another pond. Master Shen had never really recovered from Binghe’s near drowning.
Master Shen’s work space had absolutely exploded with paper and ink and books. He had been working on something for the past week and was displeased with the outcome of his efforts. Yingying had served a licorice and jujube tisane before bed and massaged oils into his cramped hands. Master Shen had a delicate constitution and it was not good for him to be working so hard.
Like most servants, Yingying had come to the Palace unable to read characters. Coming from a good but poor family and hired to work in the ‘kitchens’ (the less said about that, the better), she had never even considered that she would ever be closer than the scorched words of a traveling oracle let alone actually have a desire to read. It had never crossed Master Shen’s mind that she might wish to learn. She didn’t want to bother him with such low things.
But, she was a clever girl. She picked up things including languages and eventually a few characters. Particularly when Binghe was learning to write and said the characters aloud while trying to write them. Again and again and again. The ability to write back sounds was amazing and when Binghe was finished with his primers, she took them back with her. Most of the servants had no interest, but Ming Fan and eventually Wanyue wanted to learn with her.
Which was how she realized that Master Shang was a ‘dirty minded Eunuch’ who wrote awful papapa novels. And that Master Shen, who was more innocent than he should be, enjoyed these novels. She had been alarmed at first, but it became obvious that what he enjoyed was mocking them and the ‘romantic’ parts. From what she (and the other servants) could make out, there weren't a lot of ‘romantic’ parts to be had. Just the naughty sort that were well represented in the accompanying images.
At some point, it became obvious that Master Shen was the main protagonist and for that, she always made sure to put a laxative in Master Shang’s tea. She never served Ganyuan the same tea as he was a sweet boy who was only doing what he was told.
She could only make out bits of the notes. Master Shen’s handwriting was beautiful, but most of these were in Master Shang’s hand. Which was awful.
She neatened the workspace up, dusting and washing as needed, and waited for Ganyuan.
“What does this say?” she asked the Eunuch, when he returned from his errands with correspondence, packages, and a frown.
He looked down at the papers she handed him and blushed violently before saying. “It looks like Master Shen is trying to write the next...papapa,” he said that very, very quietly, “Book of Low Wall by the River.”
“Your Master Shang is so pitiful,” she said, hands on hips. “To make my Master Shen write such low books for him.”
“Well, don’t worry too much,” Ganyuan said bravely, too young to know that Yingying could be scary. “It’s too romantic to be taken seriously. Low Wall readers want something more…you know.”
Well she did know. But romantic… “Read it back to me.”
“The Fair-faced Prince came to Low Wall by the River at the appropriate visiting hours, supervised by the Eunuch chaperone. ‘Thank you for seeing me,’ he said, taking Low Wall by the River’s hand chastely. ‘This one has been away and has something to ask.’
‘This one will hear anything the Fair-faced Prince asks. We have been parted so long, but this one has never forgotten our tender moment beneath the peach blossoms.’ Low Wall by the River looked into the Fair-faced Prince’s glossy orbs, moist with emotion.
‘This one wonders if we may share another tender moment?”
Before Low Wall by the River answered, a spotted lynx ran from the underbrush. It was unusual to see one so far away from its preferred mountain habitat. Even moreso as it was daytime and the spotted lynx was a nocturnal creature. A moment later, a tender bun of orange fluff emerged. It was a spotted lynx kit, wobbly and sweet. It came to Low Wall by the River’s hand and nuzzled, begging to return to Low Wall by the River’s courtyard.” Ganyuan smiled.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Master Shen wrote that,” Yingying frowned. “It would be shameful for everyone to know he wrote such things.” They both knew that Master Shang was shameless enough to do anything for a quick return. Master Shen was so...pure. “We have to do something."
“Er,” Ganyuan coughed. “Master Shen is...Master Shen. How can we stop him from doing what a Master wants? We are only servants.”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Please forgive me, Master Shen,” Yingying said later, prostrating before him. “As I was tidying, it fell from my hands and into the brazier.” Ming Fan would have to take the heat on the open brazier that was also two feet closer to Master Shen’s table than it usually was.
“Yingying, please get up!” Master Shen seemed somewhat alarmed by the scene. “It really is alright. At any rate, it wasn’t worth keeping so you have done me a great service.”
“Can this one bring Master Shen tea?”
“Yes,” Master Shen said gratefully, still alarmed by Yingying’s behavior. Rationally, he knew she was a servant, but he thought of her more like a friend.
Neither realized that not all traces of the chapter had been erased. In a treasure box that Yingying never touched was a copy of the ill-fated document. ‘This one will hear anything Shizun asks. We have been parted so long, but this one has never forgotten our tender moment beneath the peach blossoms.’
“Why don’t we just write something?” Wanyue asked, holding Master Shen’s robe with a devotion that bordered on worship. She was very skilled at mending, but If Wanyue had been chased by peacocks, she would perhaps not keep Master on a pedestal.
“You're too ambitious,” Ming Fan said, strong enough to pound rice for hours. “You’re bound to get your heart broken.”
“What’s wrong with a little dreaming if it’s just dreaming?” Yingying asked. Because of her rank, she had better accommodations but could be found with the general servants sometimes. Especially if it meant snagging sweets for Master Shen.
“No, I’m serious.” Wanyue defended. “Between us, we should be able to make a story for Master Shen. I can’t write, but I can make a story in my head.”
Yingying paused. “I had not thought about that.” She sighed. “But we can’t write the shameless things Master Shang does.”
“If Master Shen loves romance,” Wanyue said with great conviction, “Master Shen cannot be the only one.”
“We need reference materials,” Ming Fan decided. “To see what people are reading.”
“I don’t know the deadline, but it would take forever to understand the characters. Who could help us?” At that moment, Ganyuan came skipping in. He had a book under his right arm and a smile on his face.
“Hello, everyone. I heard there were sti--” His words drifted off when all three servants stared at him. He sighed. “Ok. What do you want me to do?”
“This is not so bad,” they agreed after Ganyuan read them the last romantic novel he could find: the Dream of Wild Places. This was the fourth such book they’d read and by far the most popular.
“No, I did not mind it. But it seems that even romantic novels need to have papapa.” Wanyue said with a resigned sigh. Yingying tapped her fingers on the table. Ganyuan had been bright red reading those parts.
“Master Shen has read Master Shang’s work,” Ganyuan reminded them. “I do not think Master Shen would be scandalized if a romantic novel had, um, that.” He said the last word very, very quietly.
“That is true.”
She decided to start with a survey. Not everyone in the Orchid Palace responded, but Ganyuan assured her that a 5% return rate was actually very good. ‘1% is usually normal in anything not related to the human toaster, so 5% is a victory.’
It was best to know what the audience wanted before committing time or paper.
Ganyuan was going through the forms and reading out preferences to Ming Fan, who was tallying them to see what was most popular. “Friends to lovers.” “Forbidden love.” “Another forbidden love.” “Four soulmates.” “Jade Emperor.”
“Was that even an option?”
“It’s a write in.”
“What is the character for jade?” Ganyuan traced it out and Ming Fan wrote it down.
“Shizun/disciple.” “Shizun/disciple.” “Another Shizun/disciple.”
“That seems to be very popular.”
“Kidnapped.” “Secret identity.” “Royalty.” “Another forbidden love.”
With their results tallied, it appeared that there was an interest in a forbidden love harem novel. “But they want it to be a reverse harem.” Yingying blinked and Ming Fan said, “I think that is a male harem with a woman Emperor.”
“So… a cross-dressing woman in a male harem who...the Empress falls in love with?” It seemed...implausible. But if that’s what they wanted...
“What if they’re soulmates?” Wanyue asked
“How much angst do you think they want?”
“Is Yingying feeling well?” Master Shen said, startling the servant who had been nodding off slightly. Master Shen sounded concerned.
“This one is fine, Master Shen.”
“That is what Yingying said the last time she passed out coughing.” Master Shen looked at her carefully. “This one is ordering Yingying to go to bed.”
“But Master Shen--”
“Binghe and this Master can surely survive without Yingying for one night.”
Yingying knew this was not true. But. A half-day to sleep sounded very nice. She had been pulling some late nights. “This one will do as Master asks.”
“What should we call her?”
“It can’t be anyone we know. I don’t want to be toasted.” Ganyuan said with great feeling. His mind wandered often to the human toaster. He even had dreams about it.
“Isn’t there a Qiong Queen in the South?” Wanyue asked. “Master Ji came to court last year about losing a city, right?”
“Oh, I remember. Master Ji’s servant was very shameful. He would talk about his Master’s business to anyone.”
“Well, Master Ji was shameful for losing to a woman.” Yingying flicked Ming Fan in the forehead.
“Ay! What is wrong with a woman? If I were a fierce Queen, I would take more than just one city.” She stopped just short of treason. “Master Ji should be grateful.”
“But she was a fierce Queen! It would be perfect for our Empress.”
“It was Sha,” Ganyuan provided. “Sha Hualing.”
“Do you think this Sha Hualing has a Consort? A primary consort.”
“How does a Queen have enough children if she’s the only one having them?” Wanyue wondered at the thought of a fierce Queen, let alone the fierce Queen having a child. “What if something happened to her? When she was fighting?”
“If she led the army,” Ming Fan said. “Not all rulers lead their troops.” They all know he was talking about the Emperor.
“She is a fierce Queen. She leads the army.”
“I know!” Ganyuan piped up. “Maybe the harem has children.” They all looked at the little Eunuch with pity.
“Ganyuan,” Ming Fan said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You know that men can’t have children, right?” Master Shen had made sure that they all knew this. Emphatically.
Ganyuan rolled his eyes. “You have to dream a little bigger. I imagine many women would appreciate the option to not have a child. Or at least have the father have one.” He thought back to his ten siblings.
“That’s fair,” Yingying and Wanyue agreed. “Let’s add that to the story.”
“But...how do they...come out?” Ming Fan asked, still flummoxed by the concept. Everyone looked at his ‘little brother’ and he cringed. “That is not right.” As none of them had ‘little brothers’ there was no sympathy to be had there.
“I don’t think our readers want to know the intimate details of how these children arrive. They want the romance between Sha Hualing and ‘Yingying.’” They had been referring to Mysterious Soul Mate as ‘Yingying’ and it sort of...stuck. At least they were different characters. “Kissing,” Yingying counted down. “Love and good papapa.” They were absolutely dependent on Yingying for the last. None of them had ever done that and she had second-hand knowledge from her time in the Pleasure Kitchens.
“How do two women papapa?”
“Don’t ask that!” Yingying covered Ganyuan’s ears.
“You know that he’s actually writing it, right? Ganyuan’s ears won’t stay innocent for very long.”
“I was Master Shang’s servant.” He reminded them and Yingying dropped her hands.
“Back to the matter at hand,” Wanyue poured them all tea. It was very late in the evening. “Consort?”
“Yes. But there isn’t one now. Why?”
They all thought. “Maybe in taking X city,” they still hadn’t come up with a city name and had basically borrowed the actual Sha Hualing’s life. “He died.”
“I think it’s more dramatic if he died from a fever. So they had a touching farewell scene,” Ganyuan wrote this down.
“So they loved each other?”
“Maybe their marriage was arranged in childhood,” Ming Fan offered. “And they cared deeply for each other...but he died too young.” There was something there that Yingying put aside for later.
“Do you think that Yingying looks like him?”
“Oh, put that down.”
“Maybe they were secret siblings? Wasn’t secret identity one of the things that were mid-ranking?”
“Has there been any word from Master Shang?” Master Shen asked Ganyuan, who was quietly copying letters (but writing down dialog - eidetic memory for the win), while Master Shen diligently lounged.
“No, Master Shen.” He paused, “If this one may.” Master Shen waved him on. He really was a very easy Master. “The distance from the Capitol to Master Ling’s city is over 700 li. Barring the unforeseen, it is probable that Master Shang’s letters would only just be returning. Can this one assist you with anything?”
“Oh, no no.” Master Shen stammered. “Ganyuan will deliver letters to town tomorrow.” This was ‘Master Shen speak’ for delivering letters to his booksellers and printers. A lot of livelihoods depended on the success of Master Shen’s venture.
“Yes, Master Shen.” He returned to his task with a sense of great purpose. Master Shang had asked him to look after Master Shen and the Sha Hualing novel was going to save everyone.
“She looked and saw his curtains and bed, the table and mat. These things were there just as before. But the man they belonged to was no longer there. The lavender chrysanthemum... had turned white. ”
“That is...too moving,” Yingying said, wiping her eyes. Wanyue was behind her sleeve and even Ming Fan’s head was lowered. Only Ganyuan, who had added dramatic flair to the words, was not crying.
“But does it make you want to read more?”
“Empress Sha could not tell if she fell in love the first moment they met. Or the second or third or fourth. All she knew was that when the young man walked towards her, she realized that the rest of the world had disappeared. ”
“The young man stumbled backward when faced with the white beauty of the Queen’s shoulders. This caused him to tumble into the bathwater where he was soaked instantly. ‘You--’ the Queen had not dropped the arms that had reached out to him. ‘You are a woman.’
The young man - woman - hung her head, hiding the shame in her dark eyes. The thin robe she’d been given when preparing to visit with the Queen revealed slim and shapely limbs, a narrow torso, and the milk white of her throat.”
“Are we just skipping over describing her,” Ming Fan motioned to his chest. “It jumps from torso to throat. There are things in between.”
“I wasn’t sure that women would want to read about,” Ganyuan looked down at his chest.
“You are both idiots,” Yingying sighed. “Write this down, ‘As the two stood there, one staring and the other looking away, the Queen noticed the ruby rosebuds on the young woman’s chest.’ ”
“Dampening,” Ming Fan threw his hands up, “Aroused by the scene before her, for the first time in her life, the Queen thought of a woman’s body as beautiful.”
“While the young woman trembled, for cold or something else, the Queen slowly stepped forward and touched the lower bow of her mouth. The skin there was pale with cold and the Queen thumbed it until color bloomed. ‘What is your name? Your true name.’
‘Yingying,’ the young woman said, not daring to look up.
‘Yinging. Open your mouth to me.’”
Wanyue was fanning herself. “You have a true gift.”
“Is that how you want to be kissed?” Ming Fan asked.
“Why would you ask that?” Yingying asked, flustered. “I have never done such things , so I have no idea. The guests at the orgies never kissed. They did other things.”
“I think Master Shen will like it,” Wanyue said with unwarranted conviction. “Because of the kissing.”
Ming Fan was still staring at her, so Yingying turned back to Ganyuan. “Continuing…”
Yingying was preparing tea when Ganyuan came into Master Shen’s rooms. The Master continued to be somewhat anxious and had been playing ever more gloomy songs on the guqin. Young Master had been checking his forehead for heat every fifteen minutes and his meridians every twenty.
Very carefully, Ganyuan set the mail on the table. Normal correspondence and invites.
Most conspicuously, a package wrapped in cloth about 4” thick. They had debated whether to use a scroll or not, but the length of the novel had made that infeasible. ‘What if I start at the wrong size and it gets smaller as I try to fit everything in?’
Master Shen all but threw his guqin aside in his haste to get to the package.
‘We cannot say it’s come from Master Shang. He may find out and this is too good for him.’
‘Then who shall we say it is from?’
Shen Yuan picked up the card first. ‘Master Shen. This one has been told that you are a great fan of romances. Please find a manuscript within that this one hopes will suit your taste and may, perhaps, gain your patronage.’ This was too exciting!
He untied the cloth while Binghe closed in enough to test the back of his hand on Shen Yuan’s forehead. He barely felt it. The package was, in fact, a manuscript titled The Rosebud Romance by Shénmì de rén.
His hands were shaking as he untied the ribbon and turned to the first page.
‘There was mourning in the Qiong lands of the Jiuzhong. The Jiuzhong-jun had died without a son and his heir was his only child, a daughter named Sha Hualing.’
It was an overnight sensation.
Nothing too serious to report. I fell down a rabbit hole where apparently the ladies of the late-middle Tang dynasty were seriously killing it. Where Shangguan Wan'er (a mini-Earl of Warwick) was, for a time, the defacto Prime Minister while Empress Wu Zeitan was playing a very excellent game of 'go.'
Outside of the whole deposing men thing and using super young children as imperial pawns, there was a general uproar because the Imperial consorts were setting up mansions outside of the palace.
Chapter 20: Market Reach
The Romance was no seven-day wonder.
Thank you everyone who read, kudo, or comment on this work (*ˊᗜˋ*)/ᵗᑋᵃᐢᵏ ᵞᵒᵘ*
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“And who is this?” asked a burly man in worn lamellar armor with the bronze epaulet they all wore, stamped with a glyph. Yingying said nothing, eyes down. Her cheek was the only tell to a body blacked in bruises.
When she had been quiet too long, the man tore the sigil - stolen from a dead man - from her belt. “Ye Meng.” Her father’s was buried in the rich earth of their farm, hundreds of years from where she stood now: ankle deep in the mud of a Yi City where a soldier was...checking the inside of her mouth?
“How old is Ye Meng?” He asked, chin in his hands, knowing she couldn’t respond. She felt like a sow at market, eyes averted to hide her fear. She was afraid. “Does he speak?” The man pulled Yingying’s face back by the loose topknot. “He has a tongue. Pretty eyes, but thin.” His slave handed him a brush saturated in cinnabar and he made a mark on her: cattle.
The Marker was already three men down the line when there was a commotion and every single soldier went down to their knees in the filth. With a fate already sealed, Yingying dared to look up at the train of horse and riders.
The first riders were in bright bronze chest plates over which they wore sheer white cloth. Their helmets were also covered in translucent gauze held in place by small hooks like a curtain. They - and the ponies they rode - were covered in gold and absolutely pristine. They neither looked nor acknowledged the kneeling troops. But, perhaps feeling the weight of Yingying’s eyes, one turned to look at her. Neither looked away until and the rider signalled their second and fell back into the column.
In a moment, the entire train had come to a stop. No one spoke and there were only horse sounds and the clink of livery. Yingying continued to watch. From the middle of the column, a rider in a red horse came towards her. The woman, and there was no doubt it was a woman, was dressed much the same as the others save for a hairpiece of beaten gold bells and rubies. Her gauze was red. She was striking but not beautiful. “You,” she said, addressing Yingying.
If Yingying expected further words, they did not come. The two held their eye contact, the Woman in Red and Yingying, until one of the white riders came alongside and said lowly, “My Queen.”
The Queen’s mouth scowled while her eyes lingered. “What has happened to your face?”
“My city was invaded by barbarians,” Yingying said in a clear, carrying tone with absolutely no emotion.
“Insolent.” The white rider said, bringing their foot up and kicking Yingying in the shoulder. The force sent her to the ground. It hurt, it always did, but she was lucky enough to land on a body. Not one for self-pity, she got back up.
“Get down.” The Queen said to the white rider, who hesitated. “Get down.” The man dismounted, white boots squelching in the mud. “Your wish is granted.” There was a complete look of shock in the man’s face. With shaking hands, he removed a bronze dagger from a pouch at his side and slit his throat. The body fell, eventually, and continued to bleed out for sometime. The Queen sighed. “That was very poorly done.”
The most unexpected thing happened. The Queen herself dismounted, retainers running to put down gold cloth to keep her from the ground. She was a head shorter than Yingying and was heavily perfumed with pomegranate oil. She grabbed hold of Yingying’s filthy collar and tugged. Yingying’s eyes closed reflexively, expecting a slap. Instead, she was horrified to find that the Queen was pulling apart the robes. Yingying was slender, but she was not without endowments. She backed away but the Queen held fast. “Is it all like this?” She’d only pulled enough fabric to show the livid marks at Yingying’s throat and collarbones.
“It has been a long war.” Yingying said. She had the distinct impression that she was amusing the woman. It was odd. The whole scene was odd.
“You have a familiar face,” the Queen said. “Come with me. I have a free horse,” she said, her retainers attempting to figure out her direction as she moved. “Hua,” she called one of the white riders, “Take Ye Meng to the Silver Pavilion and see that he is given all honors owed to guests of the Queen.”
The Silver Pavilion… was a mansion in the Queen’s harem.
After two weeks of hard riding - the Queen’s home was far from Yi City though they passed many outposts that had become cities in between - Yingying had been able to keep the secret of her sex. Everyone seemed to be under the impression that she was, in fact, Ye Meng.
But she was expected to dine with the Chief Concubine, Shaofeng.
Which necessitated ‘appropriate garments’ which necessitated ‘appropriate preparations.’ Appropriately under the guidance of the Silver Pavilion servants.
“You are quite safe,” Hua said. “Her majesty’s things are for her eyes alone.”
All of the Silver Pavilion servants were blind. It was a mark of high honor to have been born without sight and thus prized by the Queen.
Though they were blind, their other senses had been highly trained. All mansions were exactly the same and the courts gravelled. The fog of incense was nonexistent, but there were scents everywhere. Even the water smelled. It was not unpleasant, but strange.
Despite her unease, the servants said nothing as they assisted in bathing and dressing her. Her small noises told them she was still injured and they were very careful. “Don’t worry,” they reassured her. “You will have the Queen’s favor when you heal.”
Shaofeng was unexpected. An older man whose hair was entirely grey. It looked like liquid silver. “I was once the Queen’s tutor. She honored me by taking me into the harem.” It seemed his position was in title only and Ye Meng was heartened. Until he said, “Once you are healed, I will arrange your intimacies with the Queen.”
Intimacies… with another woman? She was not ignorant of what a harem provided. But. She was also not Ye Meng.
“Our Queen is not unkind,” Shaofeng assured her, reading her unease as that of serving a former enemy. “I can supply you with aids,” books and aphrodisiacs, “And you will be completely supported if our Queen gives you an egg.”
“An egg?” Yingying coughed.
“Our Queen has been very generous with her harem. All concubines have been honored with a child.”
Mingyan dropped the book. The Shangdi Saintess, who really should have been cultivating enlightenment, was scowling. The author - she looked at the ‘mysterious author’ byline - had perverted the mythological foundation of the dynasty to create a male harem that could...have children? It was oddly evocative. It was brilliant. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
She looked out over the misty heights of her favorite cultivation spot. She had no fear of heights and it was a good place for reading - and writing - high quality papapa. Picking up the book, her finger traced the gold Magnolia that was the mark of the ‘brand.’ Who were these people? There was obviously more than one author. Cart up the Mountain (100% hack papapa) did not write this.
Mingyan was an intelligent person. She had entered the Shangdi temple at seven and rose just high enough to be allowed unsupervised cultivation, but not complicated religious duties. She transcribed sacred texts which gave her plausible access to writing materials. She performed Oracle duties bi-weekly, which gave her access to booksellers and the raw material to write her works: human dreams and aspirations. Everyone asked the Gods about love. It was an endless source of inspiration.
Her novels had been popular. High quality works utilizing her years of literary training. They were nuanced and well researched. If there were a real literary hierarchy (there was in her head), she would be at the top.
Then Cart up the Mountain showed up. It was awful, but not the usual picture-books most people ‘read.’ There was an actual story - papapa stripped of all real plot - but a story. Of one man - this Low Wall by the River. Suddenly, the books were everywhere. Brothels and booksellers and the boudoirs of women of note (and many men).
Mingyan’s novels had never had that sort of reach. She didn’t have the distribution or production force that Cart up the Mountain seemed to have. Or, starting with later volumes, that much knowledge of her brother’s ability to navigate a ‘hoat’ in that fashion. Because Bird in the Willow was definitely Liu Qingge. Somehow, that block of wood had become a sex idol.
It was also obvious that the main character was (or based on) a Shen from Qing Jing. They were notable for the eyes they had brought east with them. Mingyan had met Peak Lord Shen once. He was the most beautiful person she had ever seen, but also the scariest. Like a gemstone cut to a razor’s edge but as plain spoken as her brother.
He would never inspire someone to garden trysts.
The books couldn’t have had a better PR team. Now everyone ‘knew’ Low Wall by the River!
She knew for a fact that The Willow’s Green Bride, a sort of musical play, was making a tour. She had seen it. Painted wooden masks and lyrics directly taken from the books: In the Summer, the Chrysanthemum unfurled on the Branch. One of those painted masks was Qingge! It even had the birthmark! This was both horrifying and deeply amusing.
The whole machine - it had to be a machine - was ingenious. It was too good!
Now there was The Romance. It had forbidden love, mistaken identity, a possessive Lily, a competent heroine! It was erotic in a ‘just explicit enough’ way. Mingyan had already read it four times and marked up the sections she liked.
She touched the Magnolia. She had to find out who these people were.
In the interim, she flipped to her one of her absolute favorite parts.
While the young woman trembled, for cold or something else, the Queen slowly stepped forward and touched the lower bow of her mouth. The skin there was pale with cold and the Queen thumbed it until color bloomed. "What is your name? Your true name."
"Yingying," the young woman said, not daring to look up.
"Yinging. Open your mouth to me."
The young woman had never tasted lovemaking, but opened at the Queen’s entreaty. The Queen’s thumb, wetted by Yingying’s tongue, traced the pale petals. ‘Will you yield to me?’ she asked, gently, as the fingers of her left hand teased the robe belt. "I would give you pleasure." Her voice dropped, breath warm against Yingying’s ear. "Have you ever had pleasure?"
The young woman shook her head. The belt loosed, warm silk opening against the unpainted canvas of her skin…
“Wasn’t Yingying wet?” The Duke of Zhou asked his nephew, Zhuzhi-lang, who was only listening out of politeness and filial piety. “I could have sworn that she had just fallen into the Queen’s bath…” He flipped back and smiled. “I was correct. This,” he waved the book, “is quite good but in need of better editing.” He absently stroked the gold Magnolia. “I must know who publishes this.”
“It’s obviously coming out of the Palace. It is almost certainly a concubine in the Orchid Palace.”
“And we haven’t been able to get anyone?”
“Only a few lesser concubines. Under the last Emperor, it would have been easier. This one has a tendency to pop the heads off his rosebuds if they bloom in the wrong way. Have you asked that Eunuch--”
“That pitiful source got himself transferred to the Northeast. It is unlikely that he will return.” Junshang sighed. “How do I get into the Orchid Palace?”
“You would have to go to the Palace. The Emperor would arrest you on sight,” Zhuzhi-lang said calmly. It was fact after all. “For the ‘misunderstanding’ you had with the Capitol.”
“How long do you think I would need to be there?”
Zhuzhi-lang coughed. “Junshang, it would be very difficult to remove you from the Palace if the Emperor desired you as his ‘guest’.”
“Surely you can ransom me out? I am abhorrent to the man, but you are tolerated.”
“Just barely. He does need us militarily--”
“And our money.”
“And taxation of the Duchy is imperative to maintaining his lifestyle. But he really, really doesn’t like you.”
Tian-lang sighed. “Tell me more of my son. Does he look like me?”
“Though it is said that he looks like the Emperor, Binghe looks very much like Su Xiyan but for his eyes. He is handsome and well. Consort Shen has overseen his studies. His knowledge is far better than the rest of the Emperor’s brats.” Zhuzhi-lang did not like children.
“Tell me more about Consort Shen,” Tian-lang said, motioning for the ladies to continue to play. The music covering their conversation. “Is he likely to buy my son an army?”
“He has amassed an enormous fortune and popular goodwill. From our conversations, he does appear to be positioning Binghe very well,” Zhuzhi-lang took a drink of the jasmine tea. “Binghe adores him.”
“As do you.”
“As far as I could like anyone.”
“Do you think the Emperor will let him leave the Palace?”
“No, I do not. Consort Daji has been keen to marry him to an ally, but the Emperor is not blind to Consort Shen’s value, particularly as a pawn to use against the Peak Lord and Cang Qiong. For now, he has the butterfly caged. But he has mistaken the tiger for a butterfly.”
“You grow so poetic in your old age.”
“Perhaps it is a bad influence.” Tian-lang smiled. He was inordinately fond of his nephew.
“Do you think we can convince the Peak Lord to marry him to Binghe?”
Zhuzhi-lang blinked. “No. But. I think we can convince Consort Shen to marry Binghe. Particularly if his life is under threat. Which, we both know, Emperor’s sons always are. Consort Shen is very fond of Binghe and marriages have been based on less.”
“If would be a viable threat to the Emperor. Binghe is a Shang and Consort Shen would bring Cang Qiong. The Emperor overlooked it, as his eyes are facing inward and Cang Qiong is far from Anying, but the defeat of the Xia made them the de facto power in the West. We could also extend a hand to the Southern Qiong. They have been a thorn to the Empire for generations and our spies say that the current leader, Hualing, would be amenable to negotiations. Especially if they were given the land the Ji currently have. The Ji being cousins of the current Emperor, this would be a small thing.”
“Do you think we could ransom both myself and Consort Shen?”
“Absolutely not. We are not positioned to do anything soon. With a delicate hand, I would say… a decade?”
“How about five years?”
“It depends on the relationship between Consort Shen and the Peak Lord. There are rumors that it is not good. The Peak Lord has not visited his brother in almost nine years.”
“But has he ever come East? I’ve only met the man once. I made an off-color comment on the Duke of Yue and he almost cut my dick off.”
“They are married.”
“I have no idea how that works.”
“Quite well, obviously. The Duke of Yue has never taken a concubine and the Peak Lord is his Consort. Though the Peak Lord’s harem is considerable. The Qing Jing people fear the Peak Lord too much to spy for us and we can’t get anyone in there because the language is too hard for non-native speakers to speak correctly.”
“This is all too much for my brain.” Zhuzhi-lang rolled his eyes, but his head was turned. “I want this,” he handed Zhuzhi-lang the book. “Sent to Sha Hualing compliments of ‘an admirer.’”
“So the Duke of Zhou.” Tian-lang smiled his slow, lazy smile.
“I want you to feel out Consort Shen to see if he would bite. Perhaps we can arrange something to get the boy out of Anying. If they are fated, one end will pull the other. Enough of this,” Tian-lang sat up with great merriment. “Let’s hear Qinghua and My King at Moson Ger. ”
“Your Highness, the Zhou Ambassador, Ming-lang.” Sha Hualing was surprised to find that the Duke of Zhou had sent someone as to Hualing’s court. It was the only reason she had granted them an audience. She did not want the Huaxia to believe she would jump at their scraps. She was not like her father.
“Your Majesty,” the man prostrated, face to her fine carpet.
“You are welcome here,” she said with the lazy insolence she used to hide the blade beneath. She was a handsome, if not beautiful, woman with delicate features that she used to her advantage. They had brought an interpreter. It must be important.
Standing, the Ambassador nodded for another man to bring up a very nice golden box. “A gift from the Duke of Zhou.”
Much, much later, Sha Hualing closed The Romance of the Rosebud. Someone had written a romance about her and she was a heroine. Most of the details were highly romanticised, but all written with delicacy and respect. And. She was a sexual goddess! “Did the Duke of Zhou write this?” She asked her handmaid, who had also been up all night with her to serve at her beck and call. “There is no way a man wrote this.”
“No one knows who the author is. But the Magnolia flower is also found on several other books of a more...peach-bitten nature.”
“Oh?” She was very excited. “I want all of them. And more of this,” she waved the Romance around. “A hundred. No, two hundred.” She teased her lower lip between her teeth. “And the author. I want the author.” The in my bed left unspoken.
She was an equal opportunity employer.
No traces of the Romance are extent except for a mention here or there in scraps found from later Dynasties.
Zhuzhi-lang is super ace. I don't remember if Qingge had the birthmark in the novel or if it's a fanfic thing. I like it and so do Bird in the Willow's adoring fans. I read a fanfic where one of the characters had drawn the birthmark on and that detail was so so amazing. I didn't want to 'steal' that detail, but in my head it's absolutely a fad.
Shen Yuan is probably one of the richest men in the world... or will be in the next couple of years as the novels are 'published' in different languages, though traders 'get' the images. I imagine it ends up in the hands of Ennigalbi, the 6th century BCE antiquities collector. It is believed to inspire the Aramaic Song of Songs (attribution አበባ - ăbäbaa or flower) and eventually, a copy ends up in the hands of the Greek poet, Sappho (unattributed).
The rest, as we say, is (made up) history.