Dissolve and Disappear
Instead of rejecting Liang San’s suggestion outright, Emperor Hyin-su-o paused for a duration. Then he asked him a question back. Liang San did not appreciate it when people answered his questions with questions, but he did not have enough time to consider being annoyed at that moment.
Hyin-su-o murmured hoarsely, “Are you not content here?”
Liang San did not expect that the issue would be so difficult to settle. The question was not one that he had ever thought over before. Was he content here? That didn’t matter! What did that have to do with going to accompany his Emperor out to put down a rebellion?
Before Liang San could answer, the demon inquired again, in a voice so soft that it was hard to hear, “What must be added, or what must be changed to please you?”
The human was fidgeting and deciding how to reply when Hyin-su-o grumbled suddenly, “No. You may not.” And then the demon walked out, not having faced Liang San once throughout the process of dismissing his request.
As Hyin-su-o left, the demon's mind was swimming in thought. Right. Of course Liang San would want to flee from the palace. Even though he had done and tried everything to satisfy the human’s needs, to make him happy, of course he could not be content here. All this time, Hyin-su-o had only been imagining, deluding himself, that Liang San could possibly be at ease here. He would want to escape, as all caged birds yearn for the sky no matter how expansive their enclosure.
It was selfish, awful and selfish, to keep Liang San trapped in this frigid dungeon, surrounded by strangers and strange sights. The Emperor resolved that the next time Liang San asked something similar of him, he would allow the mortal to leave freely. But Hyin-su-o would be greedy and selfish, let himself indulge in the reverie a little longer, just this once.
Meanwhile, Liang San had no way of knowing what the Emperor was assuming. Actually, he had thought the matter was very simple: surely Hyin-su-o would crush the rebellion, and at most he could wipe some armor or fold some clothing while there.
When Hyin-su-o dodged the request by asking about what could be changed or added, Liang San was about to mention the bath water. Would it be possible for them to warm it up just a tad in the future? Yet Hyin-su-o’s mood seemed to have fallen straight off a cliff, because he departed without letting Liang San respond. Hmph, why had even asked the question then?
The idea of escaping the palace, or begging to leave on his own, had never once crossed his mind. This was his life from now on, was it not?
Back at home, he had squandered away his hours eating and sleeping. Now, things were not so different, except he had a new task to manage: the maintenance and enhancement of the garden. It had grown to become his lifeblood: looking upon his fish, the ponds, the trees, the shrubbery, the rocks. They were his children, so to speak.
There were only a few heads of large carp left, despite Liang San’s diligence. They were not the valuable brocaded carp—which came in rich vermilions, oranges, golds and deep blacks—but wild grass carp from which goldfish had been bred, silver-grey and very plain. In all honesty, it was difficult to detect them in the murky water unless it was feeding time.
Liang San wondered if he would ever have the opportunity to go out and purchase more colorful carp, or if he would forever have to make do with the tiny orange goldfish that swarmed on the pond surfaces. It was not that he was made miserable by the demons’ lack of accessibility to certain resources, but he did feel that the appearance of the garden could be greatly improved by some brocaded carp.
At some point during Hyin-su-o’s absence, Liang San noticed that a few of the smaller ponds had developed a dim green tint to the water: algae. He fixed this problem up quite easily, as he asked attendant Yun-sik-un to retrieve some handfuls of salt from the kitchen. He knew they had salt because his food was always on the overseasoned side, perhaps trying to compensate for or hide something.
There was also the issue of cranes, a particularly large and black variety that Liang San had never before encountered, picking off some of his fish. Liang San would have to constantly stand guard and shoo them off with a stick if any alighted.
This problem was quite difficult to combat. He could choose to dig the ponds deeper, but that would require displacement of the water. Where could he move such a large amount to? And how would he be able to recover it? That option was not so feasible. On the other hand, Liang San could cover the water’s surface with some floating greenery. Duckweed would look disorderly and filthy while additionally being impossible to control. However, the covering from lotus might suffice, and he would be rewarded with beautiful blooms in the spring or summer. But where would he find these plants in the demon realm?
He would figure it out later. During this time, Liang San decided that it would be best to increase the size of a particularly clumsy pond and change its shape. Previously, he had shied away from that sort of major upheaval to the place, but he had Yun-sik-un to help him now.
With the use of a water-tight basket, they transported the goldfish into a nearby pond. Then they removed the rock border and began to dig.
It was mindless labor, so Liang San took the opportunity to chat with Yun-sik-un. He did not know if she considered him a comrade or associate as he did her, but he had no one else to interact with anyway.
She paused for a moment, having not expected him to initiate conversation, and replied with, “Yes, mortal?”
“Forget it.” Liang San knew he wanted to speak with her, but he truly had not come up with a topic to engage in. He scratched at a mosquito bite on his cheek. The red bump and surrounding flush made him appear shy. “Are you, the demons, I mean, really here because—because the Underworld collapsed? Or is that just a story? How does an entire realm collapse?”
“Yes,” Yun-sik-un affirmed without hesitation. “I was born in the mortal’s realm, so I am not clear on the specifics. As to the reason behind our home realm’s instability, there are many theories.” She flicked a glance over Liang San, debating whether or not to elaborate. The sound of their breathing, strained by exercise, swelled in the air until she interrupted it again. Her voice was much lower, as though she was relaying a secret: “It is said that—that the deities of the celestial heavens stopped watching over us. After you humans were created.”
Liang San blinked. The tone of Yun-sik-un’s voice froze over when she mentioned the celestial heavens. Even within the mortal realm, there were different religions concerning the creation of the world and their race. Although Liang San and most noblemen prayed to the various deities of the celestial heavens, it was mostly out of superstition and tradition than actual trust or belief in their existence. He stopped digging. So there were really higher beings watching over them…
Yun-sik-un continued, bitterly, “Those high and mighty deities really have no worldly attachments, don’t they? Leaving us to die out, and afterward, settling on some new plaything.” Then her face relaxed, as though she was just remembering that the Liang San beside her was one of those “new playthings.” “Apologies, mortal,” the attendant added, not sounding too apologetic. “Do not think much of it.”
It was not as though it was the first time Liang San had been insulted right to his face. He smiled awkwardly down at his shovel.
“Oh,” he said, remembering some event. And his face, which had already been tanned by hours under the sun, darkened further. “Is…um.” He struggled to find the words, and Yun-sik-un peered over at him patiently. She never rushed or judged him when he tripped over his own tongue. “Do all demons have...ah...cold hands?”
Yun-sik-un might have given a tiny laugh, a short puff through the nose. “Indeed, I am afraid. Our core temperatures and metabolisms vary from you humans.” She nodded languidly to herself. “If you so wish, mortal, I can fashion some gloves for myself and other attendants you come into contact with.”
“No, no, no,” Liang San shot down the proposal with urgent haste. He seemed somewhat embarrassed. “How troublesome.”
“It is no trouble.”
“N-no, no, truly—on this matter of...of cold hands, it is not any sort of difficult situation,” he stammered out. What was he so flustered about? As an adult man, it was fine to demonstrate weakness every now and then, but to have been carried around like a newborn infant in the Emperor’s arms...that incident was truly black history, one that should be wiped from his memory and everyone's memory.
“As you insist, mortal.” Her response was distractedly polite: Yun-sik-un had lost interest in the exchange and was mostly focused on shoveling moistened mud and dirt.
But Liang San was not so eager to let the subject drop. “Would—would it be possible for a demon to...have...not cold but warm or h-hot hands?”
The demon attendant did not seem to acknowledge the question. At long last, she rejoined with what bore semblance to a teasing remark: “What, did you want to hold hands with us? Haven’t you done much more than that—”
“—No!” Liang San retorted fiercely, reddening, before nervousness softened his voice. “N-no, that—nevermind. Just now—that was an actual question.”
“Yes,” confirmed attendant Yun-sik-un. Her words still carried traces of amusement as she clarified, “For a demon to possess a high body temperature, that is possible. Although, of your partner, you should not foolishly wish for such a thing.” It truly was rather improper for a servant of her position to be poking fun at the Emperor’s favored individual, but she knew that Liang San would not report her for stepping out of line.
Too focused on the rest of Yun-sik-un’s statement to notice that she had called Emperor Hyin-su-o his “partner,” Liang San asked, “Why? What do you mean by that?”
“It is unnatural.”
“Y-yes, so how? I mean, how does it happen?”
Yun-sik-un hummed as she shoveled, appearing to enjoy his reaction to her lighthearted joking. “Well, it either indicates that the demon is severely injured or…” She trailed off, confused as to why Liang San’s expression had tensed. As if he had been disturbed by something. Yun-sik-un turned to look behind her shoulder, wondering if maybe a pesky flock of cranes had come again. But she found nothing there. What could that silly human be thinking about?
“Or what?” he urged. His voice squeaked off the first time, so he had to repeat it twice.
“Or that the demon is dying: close, anyway.” The attendant shrugged. “It is a rare thing to encounter if one is not out on the battlefield. You will probably never—”
“You are not teasing me still, are you?” came Liang San’s quiet muttering. He was gripping the shovel so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He knew Yun-sik-un, and he knew what the answer would be to his question.
Instead of responding, the demon attendant studied Liang San’s posture and face: “Mortal, are you alright? Perhaps you should leave this kind of strenuous labor to us attendants.”
The human relaxed and calmed slightly. Liang San loosened his hold on the shovel and examined his right index finger: earlier, he had gripped the tool so tightly that a splinter had dug underneath his skin. “I’m fine. Just a splinter.” He chewed on the sides of his cheeks as he laid down the shovel. “I will rest over there for a bit.”
Severely injured or dying? How was that possible? Maybe Yun-sik-un was wrong. It was not possible for the Emperor, the overlord of all the powerful demonic tribes, to be dying or fatally injured. Not possible in the slightest. He did not believe even a quarter of it. Yet Liang San thought about the bloodied demon from his dream: would he have been hot to the touch, too?
Liang San picked at his fingers with his nails but, no matter what, could not remove that speck of wood. In fact, he messed with it so much that it was more painful than when he had started. He should have just left it there and waited for it to dissolve and disappear.
He should have ignored it. Then it would not have been any of his business and it would not have hurt him. But now that he knew, was it not his obligation to interfere? Yet what made him think he could do anything? He owed the demon, but he could not help out his benefactor at all.