Liang San felt as though he had just awakened from the strangest dream. But no matter how he tried, he could not remember its contents clearly.
The young man rubbed at his eyes, sat up, and looked around. He called for his most trusted maidservant, Little Ru, yet no one came to wait on him. This was very strange. Where had they all gone? What were they being paid for; couldn’t they do their job properly?
After sitting in bed for another five minutes, Liang San crawled off the bed himself and walked to the door. Suddenly, before he could react, somebody burst through the entrance first. Little Ru? His maidservant fiercely clamped her hand over his mouth and pushed him back into the room.
Confusion swam in Liang San’s brown eyes. Only confusion and not fear: he trusted Little Ru more than any other person in this residence. Even more than himself. She pressed him down onto the floor and lowered into a crouch herself, looking back over her shoulder as if something else would crash through the door.
Liang San obeyed, trusting that she would explain. Finally, Little Ru glanced back at him, and he could now see her red-rimmed eyes. Had she—had she been crying? He had never seen her face betray any emotion before that particular incident: Little Ru was like a statue carved of stone, as unmoving and resilient as a mountain.
Instantly, dread began to settle heavily in his stomach. If even Little Ru’s reaction was so severe, who knew just what kind of calamity was happening right now? His heart battered a drumbeat against his ribcage. Could it possibly be another assassination attempt? This time, for him?
Indeed, his father, the Minister of Taxation, had built up quite a few enemies in the imperial court. Powerful men liked to make big fusses over small matters. But these had become big matters, so there were even bigger fusses. Corruption in the capital was rampant—Liang San’s father was not spared, as he hadn’t exactly been a vegetarian monk—and in times of emergency, partners in crime would turn against each other. It was a dog-eat-dog world. If you did not silence your comrade first, the next pot of tea you drank would be sweet with poison.
Actually, now that Liang San’s brain was pulsing with adrenaline and working more diligently than usual, he found this scene was somewhat familiar. Too familiar. His brows knit together as he reflected. It almost exactly resembled the event that had occurred a week ago, still fresh in his mind: the day that his father died, the ninth day of the seventh month.
At long last, Little Ru whispered, “This servant saw strange men within the residence. I fear that they may be targeting the Old Master. Do not make any noise after I move my hand. Apologies for the impropriety, Young Master Liang.” She drew her palm away from his mouth, the skin wet with his saliva and hot breath.
Liang San swallowed nervously, his fingers twitching. “Little R-Ru,” he said, trembling.
“Yes, Young Master?”
“T-they’re targeting my father? A-as in, assassins have come to k-k-kill him?”
“I fear that may be the case. Do not act rashly. With your martial arts ability, Young Master will only be adding to the death count.” She bowed her head solemnly, not a crumb of humor in the statement. Liang San did not appreciate her assessment of his martial arts skills—just because he was short, clumsy, and unskilled did not mean that he could not take an enemy down.
But that was not what Liang San was focusing on. His body was shocked cold despite the humid summer air around him. The young man was even shivering. Imagined insects, with thousands of minuscule legs, were creeping under his flesh. He could not tell if he was breathing. He might have forgotten to for a few seconds. A dream. A dream. This had to be a dream.
How was it possible? How could his father die twice? The Minister of Taxation had already been assassinated a few days ago! What, were they coming again to stab his corpse into mush to make meat dumplings out of? His father had already been spat on and buried under meters of earth! Not that the dirty bastard didn’t deserve it.
Liang San shook his head as if he could shake himself back into yesterday, not daring to believe his intuition. Maybe, he had—was it possible?
Had he somehow travelled a week back in time?
"L-Little Ru, uh...erm...what day is it today?" he squeaked out through a tightened throat.
The maidservant replied easily: "The ninth of the seventh month, Young Master." Was the date really something to be worrying about in a time like this, though?
Somehow, it was the ninth again. Hearing his suspicions confirmed, Liang San fainted.
And so, for the next handful of days, he relived familiar experiences. Everything that had already happened before, which the fool could recall in startling detail, happened again. Reporting his father’s corpse. The Minister of Taxation’s funeral proceedings. Signing of paperwork. The transfer of the residence to be under Liang San’s name. Needless to say, Liang San was very jumpy in the week following his father’s death. Little Ru was worried to the point that she called in various physicians to monitor his condition.
Why had he travelled back in time? And how? He cycled through questions like how his father had cycled through mistresses. Every time Liang San spent too long thinking about his situation, he would be completely overwhelmed and want to hide.
Although a wiser man might have feared the end of the week, as now it was stepping into the unknown, Liang San could not wait for things to become “normal” again. He hated the fog of deja vu that constantly haunted him. It trapped him. He could not explain it, but Liang San sometimes would feel like a ghost watching himself.
Before long, it progressed to the sixteenth day of the seventh month again: the "nightmare" finally ended. Liang San was so relieved for no reason that he brought out a flask of expensive wine to celebrate. He sent Little Ru inside—having fired all those money-hungry servants loyal to his father—and enjoyed the good alcohol out on his pavilion. A pleasant view of the deceased minister’s garden, now his, complete with ponds, shrubbery, and artfully-arranged stones.
Ah, this was the life. He had done nothing to deserve it except being born, but wasn’t that the way of their world? It was so comfortable that Liang San felt himself getting sleepier and sleepier. Before the world went dark, he heard a gruff voice muttering behind him. Huh, weird.
Since when had Little Ru’s voice been that deep?
After a long and thorough nap, Liang San awoke quite thirsty. He opened his eyes and saw only darkness. It took him a while to realize that there was something, probably cloth, covering his eyes. He also perceived that there was more of that cloth knotting around his ankles and wrists. In other words, he was tied up like a trussed chicken.
Liang San had a weak heart—a polite way of saying that he was a yellow-bellied and sheltered coward—so this was a bit much for him. Gasping gave way to hyperventilation as he kicked and struggled, smacking his forehead against whatever surface was in front of it. He tasted salt but did not register that he was crying.
When he realized the extent of his circumstances, and how he was unable to do anything to help himself, he calmed down slightly. It scared him, how unreal it all felt. Was this another nightmare?
Well, except there was the warmth trickling down his legs. Of course, he had pissed himself like a baby.
Then, footsteps sounded along with the indistinct chatter of voices. Not understanding that those people were most likely his captors, Liang San was about to cry out for help but was cut short by a sharp pain in his neck. He was tossed once more into unconsciousness.
When the young man came to again, he kept his mouth shut. He was still tied, and there was the addition of a rag wrapped over his lips. It seemed that his surroundings were moving, as he was being jostled by the rocking and swaying. Uncharacteristically clear-headed, Liang San initially wondered if he was on some kind of boat. The steady ‘klip-klop, klip-klop’ quickly told him it was a horse-drawn carriage.
Where were these people taking him? He began shaking uncontrollably and his breathing grew uneven. A man apparently noticed that Liang San was no longer asleep: “You awake?”
Liang San froze, too nervous to answer.
Was the other person laughing at him? His captor, or his subordinate perhaps, said, “Loosen up.” Was he playing with him? How could that man tell Liang San, who had been kidnapped and tied up, to just relax? Apparently it had been a joke, as the man chuckled and continued, “We are not here to kill you.”
Liang San could hear his own heartbeat.
“As long as you listen and are willing to cooperate, no one will be hurt. Understand?”
Without thinking, Liang San shook his head and then immediately changed it into a desperate nod. The other man puffed amusedly at his discomposure.
“Alright. I’ll keep the explanation simple. The Crown of Yun, His Majesty, has approved the decision that we send out a peace offering to appease the demonic tribes. As the son of a nobleman, Young Master Liang should be aware of the current state of affairs, no?”
In truth, Liang San did not know very much about the relationship between the humans and the demons. Around two centuries ago, after the collapse of the Underworld, the demon race had sought refuge in the mortal realm, settling outside the borders of the Sovereign Empire of Yun in uncharted wilderness. Despite coexisting in the same realm for so many years, humans and demons never stepped into each other’s territories. At least, that was what Liang San had heard. Liang San himself had yet to set his eyes upon a demon in his 25 years of living, and he did not plan on changing that constant.
Humans were aware that demons were extremely powerful entities, and therefore had not initiated any large conflicts with the demon tribes. However, within the last few decades, tensions had been rising. This was largely due to the forming of a coalition between the previously independent demonic tribes. They united under a mysterious leader known only as the Demon Emperor to mortals.
Naturally, the two races spoke different languages, and few if any interpreters existed who could allow for mutual communication. Thus, humans could only speculate that the rising of a Demon Emperor, when there had previously been no distinct leader, meant preparation for war.
Liang San agreed that some sort of peace offering would be necessary. But what kind of peace offering would the demons possibly want? The heads of 10,000 men? Hundreds of cartfuls of priceless gold and jade ornaments? How would it be done? What—
“—Young Master Liang, you are to be a peace offering from our Empire of Yun to the Demon Emperor.”
Was something wrong with his ears? Had someone really just said that he, Liang San, son of the late Minister of Taxation, was going to be presented as a human sacrifice to the demons?
Liang San gave a choked sob through the cloth, thrashing and flailing as much as he could. His first thought was that he was really scared of pain. Would those savages from the Underworld be kind enough to kill him before eating him? Or would flesh be chewed off his bones while he was still screaming? Maybe he would be popped straight into a giant demon mouth like a piece of candied fruit?
Maybe because he took pity on Liang San, who was acting like he was dying already, his captor undid the cloth around his mouth.
“P-p-please! I-I’m begging you!” Liang San cried, spitting all over. Snot and tears and drool formed a river down his chin. “S-save me! S-save me, esteemed lord! I—”
“Heh,” the other man interrupted sheepishly. “Unlike you, I’m not a nobleman, Young Master Liang. This arrangement was not set up by me. I am under the orders of someone higher, so there is nothing I can do for you.” He even tried to comfort Liang San by thumping his palm against his back a few times.
By this point, Liang San’s words had become incoherent sludge as he curled up into himself. There was a new wet patch darkening his crotch: another little “accident.”
“You know,” the not-nobleman hummed, “besides being too bony and scrawny, you are almost decent-looking.” It really appeared as though this captor of his was trying his best to cheer Liang San up. “Since we do not know much about the customs of the demon race, His Majesty consented to the suggestion that we provide offerings of both sexes. Mn, looking at you, the skin of the wealthy is as they say: as white as milk, like a woman’s. If I was the Demon Emperor, I would not be too displeased with you.”
What did his skin or appearance matter if he was just going to be roasted over a fire? Or perhaps, thought Liang San, if he lost more weight, the demons would give up on him because he would not be good eating? So now his plan was to starve himself into an undesirable skeleton.
“Too skinny,” Liang San slurred. He had cried himself dizzy. “Would be too crunchy…s-stuck in teeth...”
“Ah?” The other man burst into a disarmingly joyful bout of howling, slapping his own thighs in amusement. It was a duration before he was able to catch his breath. “What are you saying, Young Master Liang?” Liang San sensed the cloth around his wrists and ankles loosening, his captor’s fingers still tremoring with laughter as he released the binding. “Did you really think—did you assume that we are sending you all off as a meal for the Demon Emperor? Hahaha, those peerless flowers? Young Master Liang you truly—” He broke off again into laughter.
“...w-w-what else?” Liang San’s voice was small. The squeak of a mouse against the lion’s roaring around him. “What else would it be as?” He repeated, stronger this time.
A snort: “As a male consort, of course!”