Door of a Cage
It was another few months before Emperor Hyin-su-o returned quietly, unwelcomed.
Liang San actually did not discover the fact until a week had passed: the Emperor never made any attempt to reach him. He found out later that Hyin-su-o had been neglecting his duties as overlord of the demonic tribes because he was spending so much time asleep. Even at night, when demons were the most active or should have been, the Emperor could be seen napping in his personal chamber.
No matter how he looked at the situation, it was extraordinarily strange. One would predict that someone who slept all day long and all night long would have appeared well-rested. But the Demon Emperor’s eye bags and dark circles never left his face, like old scars.
Thinking about Yun-sik-un’s revelations, Liang San sought out the Demon Emperor first.
Hyin-su-o was passed out in his personal chamber when the human dropped by for a visit. Surprising even himself, Liang San sat down beside him on the couch bed. He had just been toiling outside in the garden: his robes were crusted with dried mud so he maintained an arms-length distance between them.
Liang San coughed. No reaction from the Emperor. He tried again louder. No reaction from the Emperor, not even a twitch.
In the span of time that Hyin-su-o was absent, Liang San had many hours to think things over. He mused that maybe he had only imagined the Demon Emperor as giving off warmth: after all, Hyin-su-o had not held him in his arms for a long while. So now he intended to double-check if everything had all been some kind of misunderstanding.
Seeing that the Emperor was sleeping like the dead—no, no, not the dead, he wasn’t dying—Liang San held his breath and reached over. The human pressed his fingers onto the wrist bone of the demon: a touch as light as a butterfly’s kiss, but enough to sense temperature.
His stomach pitched downward, the sinking sensation making Liang San think he was about to throw up. He did suddenly feel a little sick.
The demon’s skin was feverishly hot. Liang San thought that if a human infant was found to have a similar temperature, their parents might have already abandoned them—for fear of having a child burned so badly that they were mentally disabled—or begun funeral preparations. Right, the forehead! If the hand of the demon was already burning hot, wouldn’t his forehead be even worse? Could demons get brain damage from the heat, as their bodies were used to very cold temperatures? Liang San stopped. Did demons...even have brains?
Biting into his lower lip, the human leaned over once more: this time to assess the temperature of the forehead. It was roughly the same as the demon’s hands, but Liang San noticed that Hyin-su-o’s skin was clammy with perspiration. The Emperor’s expression also slackened, almost as if he was unconsciously relaxing. Liang San guessed that his palm, cold compared to the demon’s temperature, must have given the other some temporary relief. So he kept it there, flipping his hand over when he felt the palm boiling up, and then doing the same with his other hand.
Well, the least he could do was help his Emperor feel more comfortable, wasn’t it? Especially since he was dyi—unwell. Wait a second, was that why Hyin-su-o appeared so tired all the time, why he slept for so long?
When Liang San believed that he had done enough, he left to go tend to his garden as always. Lately, he realized that the beast pelt robes had become too thick when he was engaged in manual labor. It had not happened before in the past, but Liang San would become sweaty, sometimes soaking through his undergarments. Even at night, swaddling up in bed was no longer necessary: he would feel as if he was trapped in the afterglow of a furnace.
Was it because his body had lowered its core temperature to adapt to the atmosphere of the demon’s palace? How ironic, he thought, that the human was cooling down as the demon was warming up.
Although Liang San initially attempted to brave the discomfort, he eventually asked attendant Yun-sik-un if she could find normal robes for him. She brought him a set in gray, but it had been fashioned for the figure and height of the average demon. The robes would have dwarved any human, no need to mention a particularly scrawny thing like Liang San. Because the hem dragged on the floor, Yun-sik-un and Liang San spent an entire afternoon folding and sewing up the excess cloth. Both were not exactly experienced with such detail-oriented work, and there were specks of blood lost to pinpricks.
After they finished, Liang San went to inspect their crude handiwork in a bronze mirror. But he did not focus on only the robes for long. Staring at himself, he found that his eyes might have looked slightly different, although he could not describe how they had changed. Maybe it was a trick of the light.
The next time that the human encountered the Emperor, he was dressed in those “fixed” robes and watering trees in the garden. Hyin-su-o glanced at him and nodded vaguely in acknowledgement, features washed dull despite the sun. Liang San was so relieved to see him awake that he almost waved the demon over. In the end, he thought that would have been excessive considering their relationship, giving the Emperor a polite smile instead.
Hyin-su-o rarely left the palace interior, so he seemed to have come out into the garden purposefully. Sure enough, he headed in Liang San’s direction.
“Good morning, Emperor Hyin-su-o,” the mortal greeted, in as cheery a voice as he could manage.
“Good morning.” The demon was squinting slightly, unused to the brightness.
Picking up on Hyin-su-o’s unease, Liang San flicked his gaze around and pointed at a nearby tree. “Would the Emperor prefer to wait in the shade? I first need to finish up this basin of water.” Had it been before, a terrified Liang San would have dropped everything to attend to the demon’s wishes. He even forgot to call himself “this slave.” But now, he was determined to finish up the task at hand before distracting himself with a new one. Hyin-su-o did not say anything, so Liang San bowed, tugged along the half-full basin, and went back to watering his shrubs.
As the Demon Emperor watched the mortal darting to and fro, he began to grow dizzy. His head spun, so he leaned back against the truck of the tree behind him and closed his eyes.
Upon completing his chores, Liang San hastened over to Hyin-su-o beneath the tree. The Demon Emperor had fallen asleep, to no one’s surprise. Liang San crouched down to his level and was conflicted. Should he interrupt the Emperor’s nap or let him rest? It did not look like a pleasant position to fall asleep in: the demon had one leg straight out and one bent, with his hands interlocked around the knee.
Finally, he decided: “Emperor—Emperor Hyin-su-o?” Nothing.
Liang San tilted forward onto all fours and lightly tapped the demon’s shoulder. Nothing.
He drew in a long breath and then blew forcefully into Hyin-su-o’s face before recoiling. Those yellow cat eyes opened halfway, and the Emperor lowered his head to his chest to hide a yawn. As the demon’s yawn was ending, Liang San sputtered out an excuse, “A-apologies, Emperor Hyin-su-o. There was...there was a mosquito. On your nose.” The human held a finger up to his own nose, poking at a random spot.
“Mn,” Hyin-su-o said simply, lifting a hand to rub away Liang San’s saliva that had flown onto his face. “Thank you.”
The mortal shook his head vigorously and raised a hand to reject the gratitude.
“I came out to discuss a matter with you,” the Emperor began. “It relates to your previous request.” The demon sucked on the side of his cheek, hollowing it out. Liang San tensed his brows: was Emperor Hyin-su-o—was he nervous about something?
“Regarding your request to accompany me south.” The Demon Emperor bent his leg that was straight and folded his elbows atop both his knees. Though Hyin-su-o may have looked indifferent and unmoved over the topic, he had actually spent many days in contemplation. During the journey to the southern tribe’s base, he had made use of sleepless nights to determine a solution to the issue. Hyin-su-o had already decided before arriving back at the palace, but for whatever reason, he had been putting off this conversation.
Remembering that incident, Liang San nodded slowly. Seeing that the Emperor had switched to a different position, Liang San followed suit, sitting back onto his heels.
Hyin-su-o cleared his throat. “In a week’s time, I will be visiting the Qun-kil clan and other tribes for diplomatic meetings with their chiefs. If you still wish to do so, join me.”
Because the mortal wished so desperately to leave, the Emperor had no choice but to let him. The Qun-kil clan was located near the eastern border of the Yun empire’s territory, meaning that it would not be difficult for Liang San to make his escape. Hyin-su-o actually had not planned any meeting with those chiefs, but they were far away from the rebelling regions, so the trip was unlikely to be dangerous. This action of Emperor Hyin-su-o was a bit like throwing wide the door of a cage—except the bird “trapped” inside was too stupid to realize that the door had been opened!
Not sure if he had heard the Emperor’s suggestion correctly, Liang San stared. All he heard was “diplomatic meetings.” Diplomatic meetings? As in, mind-numbing discussions of politics and relations and this and that? He would go crazy out of boredom! What could the human even do in a diplomatic meeting surrounded by demons that would not even let him into the telepathic communication web? He would be of no help whatsoever!
That was not all that important though. There was an even louder question ringing in his mind: who would take care of the garden in his absence? Yun-sik-un was too rough with the plants and would probably feed the fish until they exploded, ah! Liang San felt a massive headache rising.
But the Emperor had personally come out to find him in the garden, and Liang San had even made him sit on the dirty ground under a tree and blown spit straight into his face! How could he smile graciously and say to the Demon Emperor himself, “No. I do not want to come with you to attend diplomatic meetings, do you think I am crazy and have nothing to do?”
Instead of voicing his thoughts, however, Liang San said, “Okay.”
Once Emperor Hyin-su-o withdrew into the shadows of the palace, Liang San sprinted to find Yun-sik-un, latched onto her sleeves, and dragged her towards the garden. Along the way, Liang San’s mouth would not stop moving, words spilling out so fast that they had no meaning. Yun-sik-un let the small human pull her and pretended to listen to his rambling, only catching a couple words of “fish” and “pruning” and “diplomatic.” She could not remember when this mortal, shy and mousy, had become so chatty.
The demon attendant unabashedly asked him to repeat everything he had said earlier. Liang San led her to the ponds, using fists and fingers to show how much food to feed and how often: the amount varied for each pond. Then he gestured to the stick he used to spook the cranes. He was practically dancing on his toes as he went through the list: how to tell if a tree had gotten enough water, at what point to snap off a dead branch…
Liang San continued for hours, until his throat went hoarse. This was essentially cramming a year’s worth of studies into one night! How could Yun-sik-un remember everything?
He was so worried about his garden that he slept poorly for the entire week.