The preparations for the Hunt are in full swing when Shen Qingqiu finally pulls Luo Binghe aside.
“Binghe,” he says to his student, watching the way it makes him halt in his rush across Shen Qingqiu’s personal courtyard. Shen Qingqiu has quickly learned to perfect this tone, one that lets him be clearly heard without shouting. He caught onto that fact very early on— a fae lord is always heard, but never shouts, particularly when one is a Lord of the Seasons. A Lord of the Seasons is at all times elegant and ethereal, always fey and never human. Even when he is unquestionably human.
Still appearances must be kept, so Shen Qingqiu makes sure his posture is precise and his expression aloof when Luo Binghe runs over, coming to a halt at the foot of Shen Qingqiu’s current resting spot, a seat in the midst of a bamboo-shaded pavilion.
He gestures the child to a halt with his fan, and watches in approval as the boy dips into a bow. “Shizun. What can this student do for you?”
Luo Binghe is one of those who hasn’t yet discovered the call for sublime ease that is required of the powerful among the strong of the Seelie court. Shen Qingqiu has his suspicions about why that is.
Now is not the time to voice those suspicions, however. Shen Qingqiu remains silent and still, watching Binghe. It doesn’t take long before his prize pupil begins to fidget nervously, though he maintains his respectful bow.
“Luo Binghe,” he says, and swallows the smile as Luo Binghe’s eyes twitch up toward him, then back down again. There was a time when having his Shizun even glance in his direction might have had Luo Binghe tensing, but no more. “How long have you been in this teacher’s court?”
“Four seasons, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu nods. “And in that time, you have shown tremendous growth.”
It’s not quite true, and they both know it. It is only in the past three seasons that Luo Binghe has managed to gain any recognition among the spring court, and therefore make progress among the ranks. It is not a coincidence that Shen Yuan has been in the role of Lord of Spring for only four seasons. Of course, Luo Binghe doesn’t know this, but Shen Qingqiu does.
Luo Binghe ducks his head, but it isn’t enough to hide the pleased flush spreading across his cheeks. “If I have, it’s only due to Shizun’s patient tutelage,” he says. It’s a proper, demure answer, and Shen Qingqiu nods thoughtfully, as though the answer has brought him to a conclusion. Really, he’s already made his decision, but it’s best not to give his prize pupil the impression that there isn’t still room for improvement.
“Then it is only appropriate that you represent this court in the upcoming Wild Hunt.”
This time Luo Binghe’s shocked twitch and jerky raise of his head are visible to anyone, though it’s only Shen Qingqiu here with him. “Shizun…” he gapes.
“Is this student doubting his master’s choices?” Shen Qingqiu asks, raising one eyebrow.
Luo Binghe flushes. “Not at all, Shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu hides another smile. Ah, his little white sheep student! Amongst the reserve and machinations of the Seelie Court, Luo Binghe’s open book of a face is truly refreshing. “Your improvement has impressed this teacher, Luo Binghe. Representing our Spring Court in the hunt will be a formidable task, but I believe you are up to it, if you remember to carry yourself with the strength and grace of a true fae. Do you accept?”
From the look on Luo Binghe’s face, he’s never even considered that he might say no to an offer like this, if only because he’s never expected to be gifted this consideration in the first place. “I accept, Shizun,” he says immediately.
Any other student of the spring court would try wildly to uncover the downsides of Shen Qingqiu’s offer, to consider his angle even as they accept it. Luo Binghe is naive for not doing so. He is also unquestionably familiar to Shen Qingqiu. He will have to remind Luo Binghe to do better if he is to win recognition for Shen Qingqiu and for their court, of course. This kind of naivete is precisely what other courts dream of in their opponents. But it’s useful in a student. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t need to suspect treachery on Luo Binghe’s part, not ever. And, to be honest (if only to himself), he misses the simplicity of a lifetime before he was the Lord of Spring.
Shen Qingqiu gives Luo Binghe a nod and finally allows a hint of his pleased smile to show through. “Very good,” he murmurs, and gestures with his fan for Luo Binghe to rise again. “Now, prepare yourself for the hunt. We depart shortly, as I’m sure you know. Tell no one of what we have agreed.”
“Of course, Shizun,” Luo Binghe breathes. With shining eyes, he bows, then turns to run off again. It’s only a quiet clearing of Shen Qingqiu’s throat that makes him catch himself, and depart at a more dignified pace.
Shen Qingqiu watches him leave, and waits until his student has disappeared from view to consult the winds. His plan has been set in motion, but the next part will not be as easy as summoning a disciple to his side. He will have to search quite a bit, to find the next fae on his list.
The Lord of Winter is not easily found, even in his own season. In the height of summer, such a feat is near impossible. But there are tricks that one can learn, if one has made the decision to seek him out on a regular basis.
In the seasons since he became the Lord of Spring, Shen Qingqiu has found himself in the position of both seeker and sought more often than he ever might have expected.
Now, with the solstice’s Wild Hunt rapidly approaching, Shen Qingqiu believes he knows what sorts of things Liu Qingge must be doing. It’s simply a matter of narrowing down the options. The first, of course, is honing his skills, so Shen Qingqiu makes his way off to the battlegrounds that make up the fae domain of the Lord of Winter.
Sure enough, Liu Qingge is there, training. Shen Qingqiu draws to a halt on the edge of the field, tucking his arms into his sleeve as he watches.
Fae fighting looks more like dancing than it does any sort of battle. There is no unflattering grunting or swearing, no sweat or dirt, no staggering or straining muscles. Even Liu Qingge, an undeniably physical fighter, maneuvers his sword as though it were as light as a feather, and switches between total stillness and bursts of impossible speed. Even in training, where he is surely holding back, he could easily defeat Shen Qingqiu before he could even pull out his fan to retaliate with magic.
There is no shame in it—Liu Qingge is after all the Master of the Hunt, and the strongest fighter among the Seelie Court. Shen Qingqiu may be human, but he is by no means the weakest among the Seelie, thanks largely to his collection of magical artifacts. Still, he has spent every moment of his time in court working himself into a situation where he does not need to fear being called into battle.
It is the fruits of that labor that, when Liu Qingge finishes his practice and turns to see Shen Qingqiu waiting there for him, he does not scowl and stalk over with blade drawn, but sheathes the weapon and nods politely.
“The Lord of Winter is admirably prepared for the upcoming hunt,” Shen Qingqiu says, as Liu Qingge closes the distance between them.
Shen Qingqiu hides a smile behind his fan. Liu Qingge is the kind of person who, upon first meeting, seems completely unsuited for a life at court. Brusque to a fault and completely devoted to his swordsmanship with hardly any regard for anything else, it’s clear that the only reason he’s made it anywhere in the court is his preference for remaining taciturn.
“How go the other preparations?” Shen Qingqiu asks, only to receive a shrug.
“Well, I presume.”
“You presume?” he echoes, head tilted in curiosity.
“I left those to Shang Qinghua.”
“Ah, I see.” Oh, the beleaguered minor lord Shang Qinghua. With just enough clout to be considered a lord, and just enough cowardice to be afraid of every other fae lord and lady in court, he’s managed to maneuver himself into the unenviable position of “everyone’s lackey.” It’s not a bad position to be in, simply in terms of stability. As long as Shang Qinghua plays neutral in the more petty power squabbles, he’ll be able to maintain this low-level position for some time to come. On the other hand, he’ll also have to do things like arrange the Wild Hunt when the Lord of the Hunt doesn’t care to bother with it.
Shen Qingqiu toys with the idea of offering some assistance to the surely-overwhelmed Shang Qinghua in exchange for a favor or two, but casts the idea aside for now. It has merit, certainly, but that particular tidbit isn’t why he came here.
“Lord of Winter,” Shen Qingqiu says, nodding politely. “I hoped I might take some of your time to offer a proposal.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t respond, only nods at Shen Qingqiu to continue explaining. “As you surely know, the best hunters are intended to represent the Seelie court in this hunt,” he says. “And you are by far the best representation of our physical might.”
Liu Qingge is watching him with narrowed eyes now— good. He knows that Shen Qingqiu is surely going somewhere with this, but he’s also just as susceptible to flattery as any fae. Shen Qingqiu lays it on even thicker, using his fan to hide his smile. “This Lord would be pleased to send his student to Liu Qingge for brief training before the Hunt,” he says. “To the benefit of the entire court, of course.”
There’s an advantage to all this, should Liu Qingge care for an angle. If he really wanted to, he could use the opportunity to maneuver the Winter Court into a favorable position. But there’s many reasons that Shen Qingqiu approached Liu Qingge with this proposition, and one of the primary reasons is the growing alliance not only between their courts, but between them personally. While he’s not offering a favor outright, his personal gratitude is worth no small thing, and Liu Qingge knows that, even if he likes to stay out of the game.
Sure enough, he doesn’t think about it long. “Send this student to me,” he orders, and Shen Qingqiu nods. He even dares to reach out and pat Liu Qingge on the arm, although this makes the fae lord stiffen slightly under his touch. Truly, Liu Qingge is a standoffish character! But a good sort, because he doesn’t step away from Shen Qingqiu’s hand. “I… I will see what can be done.”
“I believe you will find him promising,” Shen Qingqiu says, withdrawing his hand back into his sleeve, “but I will let you continue with your training. Good day, Lord of Winter. I look forward to seeing what it is you have found for us to hunt.”
With his first task done, Shen Qingqiu takes to wandering the court. Truly, he would like nothing better than to retreat to his rooms and relax for a while, maybe take off these ridiculously formal robes. But in the court of the fae, being seen and not being seen, are both political statements. No matter how much he’d like to simply spend time by himself, being unnoticed would mean attracting attention of the kind he doesn’t want now. So instead, Shen Qingqiu turns toward the gardens.
It’s not his season, as it’s approaching the height of summer, so the courtyard gardens surrounding the fae king’s home are full of summer plants, largely crops and broad-leaved trees. Shen Qingqiu much prefers the fall and winter to his own season, though he would never say that. Having to disguise seasonal pollen allergies from fae is a nightmare he does not wish on anyone. Luckily, healer Mu Qingfang is another one who prefers to stay neutral in court politics, though one must be a bit more circumspect about bribing him than with Liu Qingge.
But admiring the greenery is the least of the reasons to wander the garden, though Shen Qingqiu makes an effort towards it. The real wealth of the gardens is not the scenery, but who you can find there.
So Shen Qingqiu makes the rounds, nodding occasionally to a fae underling from one of the other seasonal courts, whether allied to him or not. He aims to be condescending but not too smug, simply assured of his place in the world. From the quickness of their bows, he’s succeeded.
It’s useful, but after fifteen minutes of wandering the gardens and Being Seen, he comes across the real reason he’s here.
Yue Qingyuan is surrounded by sycophants and couriers even where he sits on a simple stone bench. Perhaps it’s true, Shen Qingqiu muses, that wherever a king sits is properly called a throne. He can certainly believe that of the King of the Seelie. Yue Qingyuan emits eerie elegance with every blink, and every minute gesture. Even In the height of summer he is resplendent in deep grays and a crown of ash wood and leaves. His elaborate facial markings highlight his beautiful features. He looks like the rendering of an artist’s ink brush come to life, more than any creature of the world.
Shen Qingqiu approaches the makeshift dais, and waits for the king to acknowledge him.
It does not take long. Yue Qingyuan must have noticed his approach, because he nods and gestures Shen Qingqiu after only a moment. Shen Qingqiu recognizes Mu Qingfang and Qi Qingqi watching him with disguised curiosity.
He does not bow, but he does lower his head and wait for Yue Qingyuan to gesture him forward. This too does not take long, as Yue Qingyuan barely makes him hold the deferential pose before crooking a finger in his direction.
“Lord of Spring,” he says, with a smile.
“Lord of the fae,” Shen Qingqiu responds, with another deferential nod.
He is very aware that some in the crowd must resent the easy rapport that he manages to possess with the King of the Seelie, but they would not dare show their anger in this setting. It will come in the form of attempted backstabbing, later on, but Shen Qingqiu does not intend for this particular exchange to set fire to the kindling of their resentment. They have had to live with this delicate balance for many seasons, after all. A few more mean little to the fae.
And it is not as though Shen Qingqiu has completely cultivated the strange dance of his relationship with Yue Qingyuan. It is in the nature of the fae, to be stuck forever in a dance of love and hatred with one’s opposite. The Seelie and the Unseelie courts, and the lords of the seasons, forever separated by their own duality. The dance between Qi Qingqi’s summer and Liu Qingge’s winter, their yin and yang, should be enough a sign of that, with their utter disdain for each other, and Shen Qingqiu’s own carefully crafted peace with Mu Qingfang. Before, they were called the “earth and the heavens,” but who was the earth and who was the heavens, well— Mu Qingfang’s focus on the body, and Shen Qingqiu’s careful cultivation of the mind. Or, before Shen Yuan’s appearance, Mu Qingfang’s monklike poise and calm, and Shen Qingqiu’s petty anger and vicious maneuvering.
No one quite seems to understand what change has come over Shen Qingqiu, as Shen Yuan has attempted to steer the role of the lord of spring, but Yue Qingyuan knows.
They all must think it strange, that Shen Qingqiu’s “demotion” to this role has only seemed to make Yue Qingyuan more fond of him, but Shen Qingqiu is grateful for the ally. He had few enough to start with, and for all the hatred this brings, few fae would have the power to directly attack one in Yue Qingyuan’s favor, and those who would, Shen Qingqiu has worked very hard to temper.
He’s not dead, so it’s worked.
“What brings you to our gardens today?” Yue Qingyuan asks.
“What brings anyone to the gardens?” Shen Qingqiu responds, blandly. The answer, of course, is blatant politicking, but the ostensible answer is and has always been the beauty present there, both of the landscaping and the fae variety. Shen Qingqiu knows better than to trust either. “It is only the benefit of chance that has brought us together.”
Yue Qingyuan inclines his head in acknowledgement. “It is to our benefit that you have joined us,” he says, still smiling gracefully. Shen Qingqiu thinks he is quite aware of the members of his entourage that disagree with that sentiment, and is having quite some fun with that fact. “Have you then escaped your preparations for the Hunt?”
Shen Qingqiu waves his hand dismissively. “Ah, that is all but finished,” he says casually, aware of the eyes focused on him. This is a stage, and Shen Qingqiu has his role to play.
“Oh?” Yue Qingyuan sounds mildly interested. He may well be more interested than that, but he’s doing a good job of not showing it, particularly when the others in the court surely are. The question of who Shen Qingqiu will put forth as his champion during the hunt has surely been a matter of gossip and contention— Shen Qingqiu knows this, because Luo Binghe has been getting himself into fights on Shen Qingqiu’s behalf.
Shen Qingqiu has a reputation. He will not lift a finger himself when he can find some other way to get his goals accomplished. This is the cause of Liu Qingge’s disdain for him— or some of it, anyway. Liu Qingge only holds mild contempt for any who cannot lift a sword to defend themselves. So that has always been the question— will Shen Qingqiu take up a bow and blade himself during the hunt, or will he send someone on his behalf? Shen Yuan has been rehabilitating this reputation bit by bit, stepping in to use his fans occasionally and appearing himself when conflict arises, but he is still only human. The evidence of any mystery is more than enough reason to preserve it. There is nothing the fae court likes more than a chance to speculate on a mystery.
“Indeed,” he says, and nothing more. “Now, it is only a matter of the finishing touches, and those are in capable hands.”
Yue Qingyuan greets that pronouncement with a smile and a nod, and directs the conversation onwards, much to the disappointment of the gossips. Shen Qingqiu favors the Lord with a smile, and gracefully moves with the change of subject.
Preparations continue in a wild rush, and so too do the gossip and social maneuvering that come with it. Shen Qingqiu throws himself into the work, sending his underlings to all corners of the court for supplies and training, and maintains a bland expression and a suitable amount of social lazing to cover up for the late nights he’s putting in to make sure his own preparations are in place.
The thing about the Wild Hunt is that it’s… well, wild. Any sort of event placed in the hands of Liu Qingge is bound to be a little reckless, a little dangerous, particularly for a human like Shen Yuan. Shen Qingqiu is a Lord of Spring. He cannot afford to be caught out in this lie, to be discovered as an imposter rather than the fae man currently lying in enchanted sleep in the heart of Yue Qingyuan’s chambers.
Yue Qingyuan is not unsympathetic, as much as any fae can be. Shen Qingqiu knows their bargain is fair, is maybe even favorable to him, as long as he can keep the act up properly. Magic from the fae, a prevention against the madness and wasting away that usually overcomes a human stuck in this realm, all this is more than he could ever have hoped to achieve with only human connections at his disposal. And all he needs is to live in Shen Qingqiu’s luxurious home and not die.
The thing is, Shen Qingqiu did not seem to be fond of the practice, before this strange poison took him into his unending slumber. He has made plenty of enemies who are more than eager to take advantage of his apparent “demotion” to a Lord of the Spring from his position of ruler and companion to Yue Qingyuan. If he is, as rumor seems to suggest, out of favor with the Lord of the Seelie, then is it not in their best interests to enact their revenge against him now, when he is most vulnerable?
It’s a sound strategy on their part, and Shen Qingqiu has suffered many attempts against him in the short time he has acted as ruler.
He’s lucky enough to have had a new staff assigned to him as Lord of Spring. Ning Yingying, Ming Fan, and the hidden jewel among the rough, Luo Binghe—without them, he might have been killed by his own staff. Instead, with their help, he has been able to weather every attempt against him.
He wonders, occasionally, if they suspect him. Yingying surely does not— although as bubbly and effervescent as one could hope of a lovely fae maiden of spring, she is content to do her work and accept the praise of her lord as it comes. Ming Fan, too, while he might bluster, is content to do as he is asked and share in the recognition of his lord.
Luo Binghe, though. It isn’t that he isn’t hunting for praise— Shen Qingqiu has never met a fae more eager to hunt for approval, as even the simplest gestures from Shen Qingqiu can get the boy to light up. But Luo Binghe, he thinks, suspects something is different. This disciple is the only one who has begun to observe him closely, after all. Luo Binghe is also the only one who knew of Shen Qingqiu as the fae, before the replacement happened. Knew, and was terrified of, according to Luo Binghe’s first reactions to him when assigned to his staff.
Shen Qingqiu has worked hard to overcome that initial wariness, but as he’s done so, he’s discovered more reasons for it, beyond Luo Binghe’s apparent unsuitability for the magic of spring. There is some secret to him, Shen Qingqiu knows.
He suspects human heritage, and wonders what it is that Luo Binghe suspects about him. He is far from the usual sort of changeling for a fae, as brought into the inner circle as he is, but there is plenty of suspicion to be had around his circumstances.
Maybe Luo Binghe is hoping to hold it in reserve, as some sort of blackmail. Maybe he’s hoping for some sort of kindred spirit, and simply hasn’t found the courage yet to be outright with his suspicions. It’s a wise move, especially for someone like Luo Binghe who has thus far proved rather inept at the sort of maneuvering life in the Court requires.
If Luo Binghe is the part-human that Shen Qingqiu suspects… well, he has reasons for keeping the boy close, and they’re not even mostly to do with having mutually assured blackmail. If the boy is possessed of strange ancestry, he will need to prove himself.
Hence Shen Qingqiu’s plans for this wild hunt. If Luo Binghe can prove himself, all the better. And if Shen Qingqiu doesn’t have to—well. Plans don’t have to be for only one purpose, do they?
And that is part of his purpose, as well, the preparations he can’t let anyone know about. The Wild Hunt will bring in fae who are not a part of Yue Qingyuan’s court, which inevitably means more scrutiny, and more attacks, some more subtle than others. He will not stand up in battle, which means he has to be prepared, with magic and with tact, to dodge them, all while looking like he’s won.
What that means is preparing plenty of things— antidotes, magical protections, the occasional iron implement—to deal with any… confrontation. It means bribing Mu Qingfang with promises of copies of particularly rare texts that he has hoarded until now specifically for this purpose. It means tea with Qi Qingqi trading delicate barbs to collect gossip on the other Seelie Courts.
It also means bringing Luo Binghe along.
This is no true difficulty. Luo Binghe has made himself indispensable, as an understudy. If he isn’t fae, he has truly mastered the art of cooking, because nowhere in all of the Court, (even all of the fae realms!) has Shen Qingqiu found such delicious meals, prepared every day! Even the fae around him seem to understand what a rare treat it is to be presented with Luo Binghe’s cooking, though he often whines and pouts about having to serve his Shizun’s rivals.
Before he knows it, it’s time for the Wild Hunt.
The spring palace is a flurry of activity, minor fae darting here and there all about the place. Shen Qingqiu stands in the midst of it all, serene as a buddha statue.
Well, on the outside, anyway. On the inside, his brain is doing just as much running as Ning Yingying and Ming Fan. Has he remembered to stow all of his fans strategically within his robes? Has he kept proper track of all the fae who will be in attendance? Has Luo Binghe been properly prepared? It doesn’t help that it’s so early. Why should the Solstice have a Hunt like this! It’s so much effort to get up before the sun!
Ah, but there’s nothing to do but move forward, now. Ming Fan is running up to him, holding the bridle of a beautiful horse. “Shizun,” he says, bowing. “Your steed.”
“Thank you, Ming Fan,” Shen Qingqiu says serenely, and allows the servant to help him mount. Well, allows— Really, Shen Yuan had never ridden a horse in his life! But at least he manages to seem graceful while doing it, and doesn’t set the bells on the horse’s tack to ringing in an unbeautiful fashion. Next to him, Luo Binghe is mounting his own horse with much more energy. He takes the pennant that Ming Fan hoists up to him, and then looks to Shen Qingqiu.
“Shall we go, Shizun?” he says.
He is holding his head high, despite the nerves clear in his eyes. Shen Qingqiu smiles, and reaches out to pat the disciple gently on the forehead. “We depart,” he agrees.
In truth, they aren’t going too far, only to the gate before the compound of the Spring Court, where they will wait for Yue Qingyuan. He has started from the Summer palace, where Qi Qingqi will set off the ceremonies for the Solstice, before progressing to the Autumn Court, then Winter. Spring will be last. It is a bit nerve-wracking, for it means everyone in the Cang Qiong Court will be there to see the unveiling of Luo Binghe as his champion, but it is also a very Shen Qingqiu move, so Shen Yuan has learned to live with it. He keeps himself still, only adjusting to the occasional shift of the horse under him, and gently reprimands Luo Binghe whenever he begins to fidget.
It isn’t long at all before the procession is riding up towards them. Sure enough, all eyes are trained on them. Shen Qingqiu can see the way heads crowd together and whispering starts as they see him and Luo Binghe there on their horses. Shen Qingqiu swallows back his smile. Sure enough, his plan to embody Shen Qingqiu’s vanity and fae sense of superiority has worked out perfectly. Yue Qingyuan, at the head of the procession, even looks a little bit surprised, but he gives Shen Qingqiu a subtle nod. Approval of his choice, perhaps? Or simple acknowledgement? Admittedly, Shen Qingqiu finds him rather difficult to read, what with the need for such playacting between them.
Luo Binghe shifts, his nerves clearly building with the attention of the entire court on him, but he glances toward Shen Qingqiu, and raises his head. For a moment, he even manages to look regal.
Later, Shen Qingqiu will wonder if this thought is some sort of fae premonition.