Served Him Right
It was not long before the door opened again, this time to allow in the Demon Emperor himself. Liang San hesitated in lifting his head, not wanting to see those eyes.
Earlier, he had only seen the Emperor’s back and ink-black robes, but now he had a full view of the demon’s face and features. Indeed, there was a domineering air encircling him, warning others to keep their distance. Maybe that danger hid in his cat-like pupils sharp against the surrounding iris, or maybe it hid in those dark brows and hardened jaw. Perhaps it was Liang San’s imagination, but he looked almost tortured, a man—not man, demon—deciding between two things, both of which he did not want to let go of.
Liang San could not help his envy toward the Demon Emperor’s figure: if he himself had had a body like that, would he have been so easily captured by a bunch of lowly government minions? He could have ripped out of his cloth bounds, knocked them upside the head, and been free as a bird!
The human fool spent so long considering these “what-ifs” that he forgot he was staring rudely at the Demon Emperor. He blinked and lowered his gaze.
In the demonic tongue, the Emperor rumbled in a tone so soft that Liang San was not sure if it had merely been the humming of his dazed brain. It reminded him of the vibrating purr of a cat: he had encountered one once at the residence of the Minister of Revenue. Before that, the only cats Liang San was familiar with had been the dirty half-skeletons on the street. If even those feral strays could be tamed down, who knew what other wild creatures could be? Though he was unable to explain why, Liang San suddenly relaxed a little.
An understandable version of the rumble flickered in his mind: “I will come near. Do not panic.”
Liang San barely had time to register what the other was relaying before the Demon Emperor stepped closer and stopped a meter before the bed. Then, a massive furred beast lunged onto Liang San, aimed for his throat! He was really done for now!
Wait a minute, the very much alive Liang San realized as he opened his eyes in shock, it wasn’t a furred beast but a heavy pile of beast pelts. A blanket of sorts, and extraordinarily warm. Liang San burrowed his fingers into the comfortable furs, which had draped themselves loosely over his shoulders and chest, tickling at his bared neck.
The human had not noticed earlier that the Demon Emperor had entered the room cradling a bundle of pelts. As though he'd been aware that the mortal would be cold. If Liang San was more intelligent, he might have found it bizarre that the demon knew humans required a temperature so drastically different from his own race.
Just as Liang San was getting over his astonishment about the beast furs and marveling over its softness, the Demon Emperor leaned in and adjusted the blanket securely around Liang San’s back. The human, stiffened with their close proximity, was encompassed on all sides and skillfully swaddled up like an infant.
The Emperor’s skin had not made contact with his own throughout this process: thus, Liang San did not uncover that, unlike the attendants from earlier, this demon’s hands would have been almost burning to touch.
Seeming satisfied, the Demon Emperor sat down on the very edge of the bed. Liang San wondered briefly if the demon was being careful not to frighten him, but he dismissed this theory as swiftly as it had come. How could that be? Demons were not that considerate and...human...were they? Maybe he just thought that Liang San smelled bad and wanted to keep their distance. Yep, that must have been it.
The Demon Emperor spoke again. “I am Hyin-su-o.” He paused and cast Liang San a look, waiting for something.
Liang San only stared blankly. Was the Demon Emperor asking for his name? “This slave,” the humbling self-address left his lips more easily than he had expected, “is named Liang San.”
“I will not hurt you, mortal.” Why'd he ask for his title if he was just going to call him “mortal?” “If you require anything, do not be reluctant to order the servants outside.” As if the situation needed additional clarification, the Demon Emperor rejoined, “Their status is below yours.”
Liang San did not nod or shake his head, finding it all too incredulous.
“If any dare to mistreat you…” The Demon Emperor’s noises trailed off, only to return with a lowered pitch and evenly patterned interval between sounds. There was no translation for the new verbalizations, but Liang San had a hunch. Could it be—could it be that the demon was laughing?
Those savages could even laugh? Were snakes going to grow legs next? Was someone going to tell him soon that not only could demons laugh, they could also cry?
The human studied the Demon Emperor’s face as he “laughed.” No matter how Liang San searched, he could not find any hint of amusement or mocking disdain. Instead, the demon appeared to almost be angry, the shadows multiplying fierce and black around his contorted features.
Then the Demon Emperor grew quiet, stood up, and walked out the door, leaving Liang San alone and infinitely bewildered by their interaction—or rather, the lack of it. For a moment, Liang San just sat on the bed, crushed under several kilograms’ worth of furs. Based on the quality, coloring, texture, and sheer size of each individual skin, these pelts had not been harvested from creatures known to the people of Yun. Liang San had heard stories of divine beasts, which had either dwelled in the untainted wilderness bordering the human empire or had been brought over by the demons as they fled the Underworld.
This makeshift blanket would probably go for a fortune if sold by merchants from the empire of Yun. Keeping this fact in the back of his mind, Liang San snuggled under it thoroughly, even wiggling his shoulders so that everything under his nose could be thawed out by heat.
He was not certain of exactly how much time had passed since he had been captured by those mysterious rogues on the night of the sixteenth day of the seventh month. With no reference to stabilize his perception, Liang San felt that it might have only been yesterday that he had still been lounging around at home, but it also could have been quite a few days ago.
Regardless of how long it had been, Liang San sensed the weight of exhaustion and stress suddenly rushing onto him, more suffocating than the divine beast pelts. His eyelids remained fairly swollen from his blubbering session in the throne room and were eager to close. Now, unspeakably at ease and relaxed in spite of everything, he let himself enter sleep.
Although Liang San rarely dreamed about anything memorable or worth mentioning, that night, he envisioned a vivid scene. So lifelike at the time that he could not even tell it was only a construction of his frazzled imagination.
From a high vantage point, as though he was hovering in midair near the ceiling, he looked down on what seemed to be another man. It was difficult to tell, however, as the figure was drenched in blood from head to toe. There was not one patch of clean, untainted skin.
Liang San thought it was a corpse until the bloody mass started to move, crawling and pulling himself forward by the fingertips. Perhaps due to the exertion, that man began to breathe very loudly, inhales and exhales hoarse and trembling. Then, Liang San recognized that the man was not breathing loudly. He was speaking. Speaking the language of the demons.
So this dying thing was a demon? Served him right! Those cruel and inhuman devils suited nothing better than a hideous death! At once, Liang San remembered how the demon attendants had treated him better than the humans who had captured him, how the venerated and unconquerable Demon Emperor had given him—a lowly consort and offering—priceless furs after seeing him shiver. Guilt shut him up, so he watched the scene diligently.
Perhaps because it was only a dream, Liang San could not understand what that dying demon was saying.
Liang San wanted to tell this strange demon to give up—just die instead of inching along uselessly. He would not admit that this pitiful sight made him uneasy as he looked upon it, and yet his gaze could not pull away. Something itched deep within his chest, making his nose sour and his head feel as though it had been stuffed with cotton.
What was that demon trying to do? Where was he trying to go? He did not look like he could go on for much farther.
As an ignorant noble who had grown up being fed with a golden spoon, Liang San had a heart that was soft and weak. He registered a need to ask this not-human if he needed any help: maybe he could assist the demon in his last moments by pushing him or retrieving some item for him. But when Liang San drew close to the dying demon and tried to poke him, his hand went straight through.
Of course, this was only a dream. How could Liang San, an outsider, touch the dream’s inhabitants and alter their fates? This was only a dream. It was not logical for him to get emotional due to the death of this one pathetic demon.
Finally, Liang San looked away from the still-crawling body and attempted to trace its intended path. It seemed as though the demon was trying to reach a door? To go where? To leave the chamber? What was this place anyway?
For some reason, the rest of the room was unclear and blurry, only appearing as dark shapes and clouds. In contrast, the demon was a distinct projection, standing out like a brilliant stone through undisturbed water.
Then, the demon arrested his movements, probably after realizing that his efforts were fruitless. Sprawled out on the floor, he reached his fingers—as maroon with drying blood as the rest of him—into his robes. Out of some pocket near his chest, he fished out a small sack. Judging by the appearance, Liang San guessed that it was made from leather.
As the demon brought that sack to his mouth, Liang San’s confusion increased. Did that sack contain some kind of divine medicine that had reviving properties? Maybe it contained some nourishing food?
After pressing the leather bag to his lips for an instant, the demon returned it to the pocket in his robes and curled up, shaking unrestrainedly.
Was that—was that..? Liang San could not believe his eyes. Had that demon, a member of the vicious race from the Underworld, just given a delicate kiss to a leather sack? Was this some sort of strange ritual, maybe a step in a spell?
With a blink, Liang San awoke from the dream with a start. He had not fallen asleep in an ideal position, so his muscles and tendons ached from the prolonged period of poor posture. The human reached up to rub his eyes and found that his fingers came away wet with tears. In fact, as he stroked his cheeks and chin, Liang San discovered his entire face was still damp.
It was truly peculiar: he had been that moved by a mere dream? Sure, he felt a good deal of sorrow helplessly observing the struggling demon, but this was a little much. Liang San scolded himself for being so unmanly and fainthearted, allowing emotions to control him like a puppet.
Without a call from the human consort, the demon attendants outside intuitively shuffled in, bringing with them a plate of food.
Liang San shrunk back under the blanket, suspicious about what a bunch of demons could have brought to feed him. He went wild with guessing. Would it be the heads of his own countrymen? Eyeball soup? Genitals or intestines of divine beasts? Stir-fried mud? Insects?
He cracked an eye open to see…
Congee. They brought him a bowl of plain rice gruel, still steaming and fragrant with ginger and spring onion. Beside the bowl of congee were side dishes: pickled radishes and cabbage, salted meats. Liang San blinked once, twice, and wordlessly dug in.
Aside from being a bit extreme with the seasoning, the course was entirely acceptable as human fare, sating the hunger that had roiled in his stomach. Maybe life in the palace of the Demon Emperor would not be as awful as he had predicted.