Fu Yushang allowed himself to be dressed in robes of pure black embroidered with silver, dark red, and midnight blue threads that formed layered clouds. The robes felt heavy on his shoulders, but perhaps that was just his current emotion piled up within him. He watched as the servants combed his hair to be tied up in a formal hairpiece made of silver that was just for the ceremony tonight.
As they did so, he began to hear the distant sound of drums beginning to sound in the night. These drums would beat over and over again at intervals all throughout the night, wishing the Emperor hundreds of thousands of years to come. Tonight would not be a quiet one. Besides the drumming, fireworks were also part of the planned spectacles to come.
Despite the fact that tonight was supposed to be a joyous one— the whole country was celebrating his father's birth— Yushang couldn't help but feel the palms of his hands sweating. His eyes trailed over to the table that he sat at while the servants combed his hair, where a box carefully painted with bright red and orange pigment and embedded with curling chips of gold and silver sat.
The small, slender box would be all he could rely on tonight.
Once the servants finished with preparing him, Yushang completed the last step of his preparation by reaching to his ears and sliding in a pair of small gold rings. He looked at his reflection in the bronze mirror, making sure that there was not a single part of anything on him out of place, then stood up.
He bent over to pick up the box on the table too, but a servant quickly rushed over, offering to take the box for him. Yushang merely shook his head at that offer, saying, "I will carry it. It is a gift for my father-emperor; if I were to let anyone to hold a gift of such importance, would that not be damaging the value of the present?"
Hearing those words, no servants dared to carry the gift for him anymore, which Yushang was relieved at. He couldn't risk anything wrong happening with the gift tonight. For things like this, he could only trust himself.
While he headed in the direction of the Taiji Palace, where the celebration was to take place, he conveniently ran into his older brother, the Third Prince named Yuxuan, who had a couple of servants trailing behind him. One servant carried a black wooden tray, and on the tray, there was a fairly large square shaped object covered with black cloth.
The Third Prince stopped in his tracks when they ran into each other, saluting politely to Yushang. "Younger Brother, Crown Prince," he exclaimed, "I see that we headed out to Father-Emperor's palace at the same time!"
"Indeed." Yushang grinned, nodding his head at the mysterious object that Yuxuan carried behind him. "What's underneath that fabric?"
Yuxuan's brows wrinkled as he smiled even more mysteriously. "It wouldn't be a good surprise if I told you now, Younger Brother. All I can say is that it's definitely something that Father-Emperor will be delighted about. I spent quite a lot of resources to gain my hands on this item, ever since the end of last year…"
This only sparked Yushang's curiosity more. He wanted to know what sort of object it might be under the fabric with a shape like it did, but it seemed like he would only find out when everyone else in the palace did. Although Yuxuan was always his favorite older brother and he was likely Yuxuan's favorite younger brother, Yuxuan still kept his secrets that even Yushang wouldn't be able to pry out.
"Let's not talk about my gift. What do you have?" Yuxuan leaned to the side to see that none of the servants following behind Yushang held anything. His eyes then landed on the slender box held in Yushang's hands, narrowing as they focused on the box.
"It wouldn't be a good surprise if I told you now, Older Brother," Yushang repeated, gaining a chuckle from his older brother when Yuxuan realized that Yushang was treating him with the same exact attitude.
"Anyways," Yuxuan said after a brief moment, "what do you think the others will get for Father-Emperor tonight? Whatever Second Prince gets is always a surprise, but I can bet my entire property that First Prince is going to bring a vase again."
"You're right. He's always presenting vases as gifts. It's as if he can't think of anything else," Yushang added with a shrug.
The two continued on with their conversation until they arrived at the Taiji Palace. The entire palace was decorated with vivid colors, and instruments were already beginning to play. A few court officials had began to arrive as well, sitting at their respective seats, but the Emperor's throne was empty. Yushang and Yuxuan sat at seats near the front of the room, with Yushang being the closest to the throne.
Eventually, once all the seats in the hall were filled, the Emperor arrived. He came in a fashion of loud instruments and black and gold robes with a train that stretched far behind him. On most days, Yushang recalled his father-emperor being quite stern in expression even if he didn't truly feel that way on the inside, but today, his father looked happier. A smile was drawn out from one side of his face to the other.
And, like Yushang guessed, the First Prince, Fu Yuchen, who presented his gift first, brought out a vase. It was a shallow yellow jade bowl-like vase, and though it appeared to be an antique and quite beautiful to look at, Yushang could spot the clear disappointment on the Emperor's face. His father-emperor wanted heartfelt gifts that the First Prince could never think of. Soon enough, without more than a single word of gratitude or praise, the Emperor sent Yuchen back to his seat.
The Second Prince's gift, one of a stone carving of a mountain, earned a much more positive reaction from the Emperor. The Emperor gave Yuchen only a brief acknowledgement, but with the Second Prince, Yuhui, the Emperor actually gave out a few words of praise. This was likely because the Emperor enjoyed painting mountains, and the Second Prince brought out this trait of his father through a completely rotatable statue.
When the Third Prince presented his gift, Yushang wasn't disappointed by the results either. Yuxuan offered up to his father-emperor a block of dark blue stone with golden webs spread across the rock. On one side of the rock were some intricate carvings of battle scenes, while on the other were golden word carvings that documented the successive conquests led by their father. They were all lines of praise, which based on the personality of his father that he knew, Yushang knew that the stone carving was the best gift as of the three gifts presented up to this point.
"Wishing Father-Emperor more and more success in the future," Yuxuan said with a smile.
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The Emperor responded with a gleeful clap, "You did not disappoint me today." He then went on a few elaborate words of praise.
After all three of them, it was finally Yushang's turn.
He walked up while steadying his hands as he presented the thin box to a eunuch who brought it up close to the Emperor. All the other princes brought large, splendid gifts, while all Yushang had to offer was a small box that wasn't even longer than two of his hands pointing together. Polite murmurs rose up within the crowd as they watched his actions.
Yushang had not said a single word. The Emperor looked him in the eye, without saying anything either, before tearing his gaze away and sweeping his sleeves back to lift the lid of the box.
In the box, there was one single pencil.
It was a pencil more intricate and embellished than all the other pencils sold at Three Inks. With painted carvings and golden flecks embedded into the pencil, it was certainly worth ten times the price of a normal pencil, and even more than that, possibly.
The Emperor picked the pencil up from the box, twirling it between his fingers experimentally. Then, with a solemn voice, he questioned, "Crown Prince, what did you bring me?"
Yushang drew in a deep breath. This was the moment which would decide his future. Whoever gave his father a good impression during the birthday celebration was sure to receive heavy rewards, which Yushang definitely wouldn't mind having some at the moment. There was also the one thing Yushang wanted the most out of all of this: his father's recognition.
Clasping his two hands together, Yushang exhaled, then explained.
"It's something called a pencil, Father-Emperor."
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