Someone On His Side
“I-I-I-” Liang San stuttered out, cowering back. He was dumbstruck to the point that he forgot to refer to himself using the humbling “this slave.” Was the Demon Emperor glaring at him?
Hyin-su-o shook his head vaguely and staggered up onto his feet. When he spoke again, it was toneless and light, too brief to betray any obvious emotion. “Come.”
Liang San was seconds away from prostrating himself and begging tearfully for an apology, but the Demon Emperor seemed uncaring, not holding any resentment despite laboring for an inferior. He figured he should not bother the reserved Hyin-su-o further by making a loud fuss. Wordlessly, he trailed after the Demon Emperor, diligently maintaining several arm’s-length of space between their bodies.
They made their way down the main corridor, which had the throne visible at its end, but turned down a side hall and entered another room.
This one appeared to be the Emperor’s personal resting chamber. Instead of having a bed like Liang San’s, it boasted a long couch draped with divine beast furs. Liang San worried his lower lip as they set foot into the unlit area.
Without giving a look to the human, Hyin-su-o strode toward the divan and sunk down onto it. Liang San shuffled forward, following, but did not sit down on the long couch. He fumbled with his fingers, not wanting to remove his warm outer robes. Seeing that Liang San stopped moving, the Demon Emperor grumbled out one word: “sit.”
Liang San instantly pushed himself onto the divan beside Hyin-su-o and curled up into a protective ball.
“Still cold?” the Emperor questioned unexpectedly.
“N-n-no,” Liang San returned, somewhat sheepish. He unfurled his body from the ball, sitting with the proper posture.
Emperor Hyin-su-o did not produce any sound, not even a grunt of acknowledgement. On the other hand, Liang San’s heart was about to pound through his ribcage, anxiety turning his stomach and rattling all his senses. He could not bear the suspense any longer.
Without tilting his head conspicuously, Liang San strained his vision to peek askance at the demon sitting beside him.
Had the Emperor fallen asleep suddenly? Hyin-su-o’s eyes were closed, so the human shifted to look straight at him.
Maybe it was the lack of light throwing an illusion, but the Demon Emperor seemed no different from a human man at this angle. His swordlike brows were tensed slightly, giving him the appearance of a dreamer seized by a nightmare. Liang San realized now that they were dark while the rest of his hair was a pale silver. The human also realized that he was staring at the Demon Emperor and averted his gaze quickly.
When an attendant appeared in the doorway and began to recite a report about an arranged meeting with some chief of a tribe, Liang San sucked in a breath of air, generating a hissing noise. The servant lifted their head, and the human held up both hands and waved hurriedly. He was signaling the attendant to leave the chamber.
To Liang San’s relief, the demon servant understood the basic message and withdrew silently.
Following that event, there were no further disturbances through the night.
Because it was so still and soundless—and possibly because of some other reason beyond comprehension—Liang San became relaxed and comfortable. He started having trouble keeping his eyelids up and, after battling drowsiness for a duration, gave in. He did not see the shadow that slipped in and guarded the chamber by its entrance.
His last thought was that Emperor Hyin-su-o was not so bad.
Some days later, attendant Yun-sik-un told Liang San to join the Demon Emperor in the throne room. The mortal was very confused: what could such an occasion be for? He had not seen the Emperor since that night he had slept over—don’t mention it, what an embarrassing event!—so he was rather nervous.
The demons were more active during the nighttime or early hours of morning, a schedule that the human was only semi-adjusted to, so Liang San did not know why the Emperor would want to meet with him during the day. Of course, he had to go.
As it turned out, the Demon Emperor only had Liang San sit with him on the throne. The structure was large enough to fit the both of them with noticeable space in between, so Liang San scooted all the way to one end. Hyin-su-o mostly ignored him, leaning against one arm as he listened to messengers and reports.
Liang San actually could not understand the demon language if the speaker did not link with him telepathically, so all the states of affairs he overheard were mainly indecipherable blabbering. Occasionally, one of the envoys would take note of his presence and draw him into the communication web. Even though Liang San only caught bits and pieces, he could tell that things were not very stable.
Sometimes, the human would sneak a glimpse of Hyin-su-o to measure his reaction, but there was never any. The Demon Emperor just looked tired, extremely tired. Apparently, demons could get dark undereye circles and bags too, because Hyin-su-o had very obvious ones.
Some place in his chest felt a little itchy when he thought about the Demon Emperor looking so exhausted. He knew that the demon treated him alright. No, not just alright, very well. With more care and consideration than...well...anyone ever had.
Liang San felt like a criminal committing treason when he stared.
But he did not know that Hyin-su-o would steal brief looks at Liang San—who was nodding off in the middle of a particularly tedious announcement—and the demon’s mouth would twitch.
When there was a lull between reports, the Emperor would offhandedly ask Liang San some perfunctory questions. Generally, they were about certain attendants, the fare, how the garden was, and so on. Liang San answered honestly when he could give a fully positive answer and lied whenever he had a complaint sitting in his heart.
Although the demon seemed indifferent during these conversations, he was actually hanging onto every last word and gauging Liang San’s satisfaction with life in the palace.
This same event, accompanying Emperor Hyin-su-o as envoys delivered diplomatic intimations, occurred a handful of times. Although, there was a difference: every round after that first session took place in the evening hours. Liang San wondered if it was because the Demon Emperor remembered that the mortal had to work in the garden during daylight hours.
Then, they caught wind of another uprising, this time among the tribes along the southern border.
After Liang San heard about the rebellion from Yun-sik-un, he had trouble falling asleep. Even though he eventually managed to enter unconsciousness, he had that strange dream again. The one of the demon bloodied and dying and crawling.
Liang San sobbed himself awake. He was muddleheaded at first, feeling somewhat as though his soul had left his body during the dream and at last came back to him. No matter how one looked at it, it did not make sense for him, or his body, to have such an extreme physiological response to the scene. He stayed in bed, rubbing his eyes until they hurt, and decided he would take a stroll around the palace grounds to calm down.
His feet seemed as though they hardly touched the ground when he moved. It was like remnants of the dream had clung onto his skin and refused to let go. He felt infinitely weightless, out of his own control.
So instead of heading out to the garden, as he had originally had in mind, he found his legs carrying him toward the throne room. Liang San did not know what he was doing and, more importantly, why he was doing it.
But the throne room was, of course, empty. Not even one attendant.
Like a dazed madman, he stumbled up the stairs and sagged down in front of the throne. Without any individual to occupy it, the large area was as desolate as the open plains. From this vantage point, it looked as though everything stretched on forever. Liang San had never felt so damned lonely in his life as in that moment, when he peered down from beneath the throne and could not see anyone.
What was he so flustered for? It was not as though he had ever had any real friends to speak of. It was not as though he was the one who had to sit on this throne and look down and see no one. Having everything, the world in his palm and kissing at his feet, but nothing at the same time. Nothing that he wanted.
Wasn’t this a bit too much like Liang San himself? What point was there to all the money and servants and treasures and titles of “young master” when there was no one who would respect him? How was it possible to be so high and yet be so low? He could not buy intimacy, only chase after its ghost.
Liang San had never dared to contemplate too much on the topic before, but...but...was that why his mother had run away? Was it why she did not want him…?
Almost intoxicated by emotions, Liang San tipped forward and tripped down the stairs. His thick clothing softened his descent, but he still managed to bruise his cheek along the way. He sat stupidly at the bottom of the platform and hid his wet face in his hands.
“—What are you doing here, mortal?” came a vocalization in the demonic tongue.
Liang San jerked up onto his feet but kept his face shielded with his hands. He peeked through his fingers, expecting to see an annoyed attendant, but instead was greeted by the sight of yellow eyes, silvery-white hair, and bronze skin.
The Emperor? He dropped his hands, cupping them together in front of his abdomen, and gave a shallow bow. Inside, Liang San cursed himself for wandering around so mindlessly.
“I...this slave was searching for an item,” the human lied stiltedly.
“Did you find the item?” the Demon Emperor returned. There was no detectable spirit to his voice: he was obviously not suspicious of Liang San’s behavior.
“Yes,” said Liang San, drooping his head. He flicked his gaze upwards experimentally, trying to judge the Demon Emperor’s mood. He did not find anything unusual about his expression, but he did see that the demon was not dressed in his standard ink-black robes. Hyin-su-o had been fitted into an outfit of plain metal armor. It was much more practical than the showy uniform of the Empire of Yun’s foot soldiers.
So the Emperor was about to leave, then. Presumably to head south.
The Crown of Yun, His Majesty, never personally set out into battle: it was all the work of generals and armies. But in the sphere of the demons, the Emperor himself had to put down rebellions. Liang San guessed it was because he needed to demonstrate his strength, especially to those insurgents who questioned his power and reign.
The human thought back to the nightmare that he had just woken from. If something was to happen—it wouldn’t, but if it did—would the Emperor...die?
Considering everything, Emperor Hyin-su-o was his benefactor. He could even be classified as Liang San’s ally, someone on his side. Liang San was technically the Demon Emperor’s servant, was he not? Since he, for whatever reason, was not being used to fulfill his original purpose, did he not have an obligation to make himself more useful?
Perhaps Liang San was still a bit insane from all the crying. As the Emperor was about to exit the throne room, on the spur of the moment, Liang San called out.
“Emperor Hyin-su-o!” An icy sensation flashed across the human’s skin despite the beast furs swaddling his entire figure. But adrenaline overwhelmed the dread and his next words were freed before he could stop them. Liang San stammered like a child who had just learned how to speak, yet he pushed through.
“M-m-may this slave accompany the Emperor?”