For the next few days, Liang San was fed well and only offered human dishes that he was familiar with. While they could not be described as delicious, the recipes were surprisingly similar—sort of a lower-quality imitation—to the ones his servants cooked for him at home.
Isolation in the bedroom had given him too much time to think things over. He did not like to contemplate deeply: if he did, then he could no longer pretend that he had any kind—even a smudge—of importance in others’ eyes. If that was the case, he had nothing left to his name.
In truth, going from the son of the Minister of Taxation to a terrified slave had not been much of a fall. Although Liang San was technically a noble, and had the bloodline to back it, he was simply used by his “friends” as a money bag. No one had real respect for him: they knew he could not say no or put up a fight, so everyone would step on him without any qualms. After all, his father’s reputation was dirt-cheap due to his obsession with gambling and brothels: the only reason the Minister had not been removed from his position for incompetence was due to his disreputable connections. Like father, like son. Once others sucked the Liang men dry, the husks could be discarded.
In fact, that was probably what had happened to bring Liang San to his current condition. He was a nobody but still of of high birth, meaning that he would make for a “valuable” human offering. With the convenient death of Liang Houzei, his father, there would be no person to make a fuss about Liang San’s disappearance. He was the perfect choice.
Liang San tried not to think about it. If a tree falls in the forest and no creature witnesses it, did the tree really fall? If his sworn brothers exploited him, betrayed him, and he did not acknowledge the fact, had they really wronged him?
On the second day, Liang San found out that the door to the bed chamber had actually been unlocked this entire time. In other words, he was free to leave and enter at any time. Wasn’t the Demon Emperor being a bit negligent and sloppy in this regard? Humans, like animals, would unfailingly seek freedom unless chains or bars held them back. But Liang San, being an exceptionally cowardly fellow, was an exception: he did not dare to leave the bedroom.
In the end, it was a demon attendant who urged the human out of bed. She helped him into a thick set of furred robes and boots, sheathing almost every centimeter of his body. The robes and boots were made out of the same divine beast pelt as his blanket. It became difficult to breathe and move, but at least he was warm.
“Emperor—” she paused for a moment, “—Hyin-su-o left instructions that you cannot remain inactive for long periods of time. It is not beneficial to your health,” the servant stated. She had womanly curves, but her voice was as deep and gravelly and unintelligible as that of the male demons. Liang San was not too sure if the demons even cared to distinguish between sexes.
Hearing that it was the Demon Emperor’s command for him to leave the bedroom, Liang San flew out in a frenzy. Yes, the Emperor had treated him graciously before, but who knew if that had just been a misinterpretation or deception: could the demon have had some kind of ulterior motive for doing so? It was not possible for Liang San to be too careful. That so-called “benevolent” ruler just might pinch his brains out of his skull if he dared to disobey!
He trailed after the demon attendant and watched her feet. It wasn’t that she had particularly nice feet or ankles or that Liang San had that kind of fetish: he was just too scared to lift his eyes elsewhere.
Liang San did not keep track of the twists and turns and doorways, but he eventually found that they were outside in the open air. Perking up immediately, Liang San glanced around.
It seemed to be some kind of a garden, although crude and poorly designed: it could be called an aesthetic failure. There was clearly an attempt made to replicate the classical landscape garden, modeled after those found in the human’s imperial palace and the estates of the aristocracy.
Except, the rock works looked as though they had been randomly strewn about, the ponds were unkempt and green with goldfish floating belly-up, and the trees were recklessly pruned. For Liang San, who was always idle, gardens and art had naturally become his greatest passions. This primitive and rough arrangement was not a garden: it was a hot mess!
Liang San did not hold back a cringe. Gardens were a miniaturization of the vast natural world, intended as a retreat from an ugly reality, where even the most uneducated of individuals could accept its beauty. It was the soul of nature and the human spirit melding into one essence!
But this—this was a complete and utter disgrace to the art form! All those dead fish and ruined trees…
It was so severe that Liang San momentarily forgot himself, muttering under his breath, “This...how could this...who could do something like this?”
The demon attendant responded immediately, jolting the human out of his mournful daze: “This garden is an extremely recent addition to the palace, mortal. Designed, constructed, and maintained by Emperor Hyin-su-o himself.” There was a faintly proud and boasting inflection to her voice.
That Demon Emperor personally designed and constructed and maintained this garden? Liang San was almost impressed, before he remembered the state of the place. Maybe, if ever the Demon Emperor was in a good mood, Liang San could give him some advice on its upkeep or possibly take over its care. Liang San quickly banished the idea—was he crazy? Why would anyone—much less the Demon Emperor himself—respect and listen to the opinion of a lowly male consort like him?
To the attendant, Liang San lied politely through his teeth. “I see. It is...stunning. A truly splendid work of art.”
“I will relay your praise to the Emperor on his return, mortal.”
Liang San swore he felt his heart clench painfully as the demon spoke. Then, realizing something, he turned to the attendant and squeaked out, “U-um...his return? Is the...is the Emperor gone...I mean to say, not here?” He stumbled over his words like a brainless idiot, but the demon somehow understood and nodded.
“That is correct. Emperor Hyin-su-o set off the day that you were brought into the palace. He is settling a minor rebellion of the Je-kj Tribe in the North.”
Now, Liang San’s curiosity had been piqued. “Rebellion?” He had always thought that the demonic tribes were supremely loyal to the all-powerful Demon Emperor, having formed the coalition in the first place. But apparently, there was some instability here too.
“Yes.” The attendant did not include any more details, seeming to have regretted bringing up the political situation in the first place. Liang San, of course, did not push her further. All he should worry about was staying alive and not stepping on anyone’s toes, especially since demons could pulverize him with a fraction of their strength.
The two figures, one demon and one human, stood out in the garden for what seemed like an hour. Although Liang San had been initially disgusted by its lack of refinement, it still was the only garden that he could see—probably for the rest of his life. He would have to get used to looking upon it, no matter how dreadful and hideous a sight it was.
Yet perhaps Liang San was a bit delirious, because he hated the garden less the more he peered at it. Very slowly, very gradually, he even...slightly...found it almost endearing. Certainly, it was untraditional and horridly unattractive: no one could argue against those claims. But it was endearing in spite of that, and maybe because of it.
Liang San could not explain his feelings. It might have been the image of that fearsome Demon Emperor tending to trees, watering shrubs, and feeding goldfish that was more endearing than the actual appearance of the garden. It was the most remarkable and ironic juxtaposition: sometimes, he would randomly smile when the thought popped into his mind.
He did not know anything about the Demon Emperor, but Liang San felt a growing sense of camaraderie with the other over, unexpectedly, gardens.
And so, Liang San made a habit of walking around the ugly demon garden every morning. It set his heart at ease, and sometimes he would be so free of tension that he would accidentally fall asleep and wake to find it was already afternoon! When he believed the demon attendant—whose name was revealed as Yun-sik-un—was not around or not paying attention, Liang San would try to fix things up, so secretively and stealthily that one might assume he was committing a crime.
He did not know that there were eyes monitoring him at all times, and he also did not know that those demon attendants would not be able to control his behavior or punish him for any of it. Before leaving, Emperor Hyin-su-o had explicitly ordered them to let Liang San do whatever pleased him, as long as it did not involve escape or harming his own health. If Liang San had been made privy to these commands, which conceded so excessively to his wishes, the man would not have known what to think.
Liang San thought he was being very sneaky, removing and burying dead goldfish, feeding his leftovers to the handful that had miraculously survived, snapping off dead branches, splashing plants with pond water, and so on. The human had to admit that the garden had improved noticeably after he began his interference. He walked a little straighter because of this “secret” triumph.
The attendant he trusted most was Yun-sik-un, and Liang San finally gathered up enough courage to confess to her that he had been caring for the Emperor’s garden. It was not because he wanted to gloat over his own accomplishments, but because he felt that one person was not enough for everything he wanted to do. He figured that Yun-sik-un could keep a watch out for other attendants, which would let him work more easily. With her strength, she could help him move heavy rocks as well.
“I have known,” Yun-sik-un rumbled back. Was it Liang San’s imagination, or was there an amused quality to her tone? The attendant’s face was in an awkward and pained-looking grimace, but Liang San suddenly formed a theory that it might have been the demon version of a...smile. He was going crazy, wasn’t he?
“Ah...ah?” Liang San really had not expected that answer.
The demon attendant languidly nodded her head. “No need to worry, mortal. You can cultivate and manage the garden however you desire to.” Considering for an instant, she added solemnly, “No one will dare to penalize you.”
From then on, Liang San was able to carry out his garden chores without being anxious of others. He had Yun-sik-un assist him in rearranging some of the rock structures and uproot dead trees.
Pretty soon, the hot mess was progressing steadily toward being a garden, much more comfortable to look upon.
A little more than two months had raced by when his attendant informed him that the Demon Emperor would be returning from his expedition. Liang San froze: he had not expected for the Emperor to come back so quickly. Unsure of how the ruler of the demonic tribes would react to his own precious garden being overturned by a human slave, Liang San had Yun-sik-un help him restore the garden’s original state.
It hurt him to intentionally ruin a place that had only just been polished up, but he could not take any chances. Why had he been so reckless and bullheaded? It was only a garden, and one owned by the Demon Emperor at that: couldn't Liang San have held himself back? Even if the original place had been an injustice to the word “garden.”
Yun-sik-un, knowing nothing about the gardens and art forms of the human empire, would never have guessed that Liang San was actually trying to reverse all the headway he had made.
Three days after Yun-sik-un had given Liang San a heads up about the emperor’s return, Hyin-su-o was back. There was no showy procession to welcome him, no ceremony at all, nor was there any grand feast. The Demon Emperor simply opened the door to Liang San’s bed chamber, in the dead of night, and made his way over. It was more of an uneven stumble, like a drunk man or someone with an injured leg.
Liang San was still awake at the time, but he feigned sleep in hopes that the Demon Emperor would take note and leave swiftly. However, this was a miscalculation.
Instead of exiting, Emperor Hyin-su-o placed one knee on the bed and then the other until he was hovering above the “sleeping” mortal. Liang San only knew that the Demon Emperor was right next to him. His heart was jumping like the heart of a sinner about to be executed, a rabbit being hunted down by a fox, but his face was outwardly calm. It was truly an astounding feat for the Liang San who felt close to throwing up out of panic.
Was the Demon Emperor going to take advantage of him in his sleep?
Because Liang San had not seen the Demon Emperor in those two months, he had had many opportunities to make guesses about the ruler’s character. Especially after learning about the garden. He had mused that maybe the Emperor’s true nature was not bad, maybe Hyin-su-o could be gentle and considerate.
But it appeared that he had just been deluding himself with hopeful fantasies. Sure enough, the Demon Emperor was a scummy fellow who was about to...to…
Tug a pelt headband over his ears?
Because he had to keep his face uncovered to breathe, Liang San’s ears were not sheltered by the blanket and would often turn pink by morning. With the headband, this issue was solved.
Once the Demon Emperor withdrew from the chamber, Liang San opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling for a long while.