When the date arrived, Yun-sik-un roused Liang San shortly before daybreak. Liang San had packed up his divine beast robes—in case of emergency—and nothing else. The demon attendant and the human hurried out into the cold morning air. Hyin-su-o and his company had yet to exit the palace, but their horses had already been brought to the gates.
Liang San gave an experimental puff, wanting to see if his breath would form a white cloud, but was disappointed. Turning to Yun-sik-un, he waved his wrist and brought his lips to her lowered ear: “I am going to go check on something, very quick.” He did not have to explain what “something” was: what else could it be besides that beloved garden of his? Without another word, he darted off.
In one breath, he ran to every tree and gave each a fond rap against the trunk. Liang San went on to bid goodbye to his ponds and fish and even lovingly stroked the focal points of his rockscape. Taking into account Yun-sik-un’s ability, he predicted that this would be the last time he would ever see some of them again. The speed at which he completed his farewells was startling for a human of his size and stature, and though she did not admit it, attendant Yun-sik-un herself was impressed by his swiftness.
It was around a quarter of an hour later that Hyin-su-o came outside, around thirty minutes behind schedule. From the cloudy look in the demon's eyes, Liang San could tell that he had just risen from sleep. The mortal might have been somewhat exasperated if he did not know about the Emperor’s poor condition, but now, he could only feel pity.
Being the Demon Emperor, Hyin-su-o was of course not allowed to reveal any weakness. Did that mean he could not even ask for help from his attendants? So Hyin-su-o was not just dying, thought Liang San, but also painfully lonely.
The first thing Hyin-su-o did was greet a sleek black horse, his horse, stroking one hand down its snout and the other along its metallic flank. Their breaths even synced, becoming one creature, as Hyin-su-o hummed what might have been sweet nothings. But instead of mounting the beast, the demon moved on to the unadorned chariot, manned by an operator and powered by four lanky equines. He patted the nearby and distracted Liang San on the back. The Emperor boarded before the human and held out a leather gloved hand to support Liang San’s ascent. Liang San was prepared to simply stroll alongside the chariot for the journey, but he could not reject the Demon Emperor’s gesture of goodwill.
He had also assumed that Hyin-su-o would be riding around on his personal steed, yet it suddenly came to his mind that Hyin-su-o was probably not in a state to do so. He peeked at the Demon Emperor, who was sitting beside him and taking deep, slow inhales like an old man.
When the carriage creaked into motion, Hyin-su-o was already past the threshold of consciousness. Liang San scooted close, feeling almost disassociated from his body's actions, and soothed the demon’s forehead with cool fingers. Around them, the wooden carriage was jostling its passengers back and forth and from side to side. Liang San’s arm was growing sore and his hand also would shake with the movement of the vehicle, knocking Hyin-su-o’s nose or eyelids.
Giving up the effort, the human allowed his hand to plop back into his lap. Liang San brought his knees to his chest and let the chariot rock him asleep.
Only to be jolted awake hours later by a knock against the chariot’s side and the announcement that they had arrived. He turned toward Emperor Hyin-su-o and lightly nudged the other’s shoulder.
After a couple of tries, the Emperor grunted unintelligibly and the door slid open to reveal a demon soldier’s face.
The mortal and the Emperor extracted themselves from the cramped chariot, with Liang San stretching the moment his feet landed on solid earth. Hyin-su-o watched him twist his limbs into strange positions, seeming curious, but the demon did not question Liang San or mimic the exercises. He waited for Liang San to finish before he said, “This place is Mhu-qwi, one of the coastal trading posts.”
“Were we not heading west?” Liang San asked, determined to crack an especially unyielding knuckle.
Hyin-su-o glanced at Liang San’s hands while expounding, “I have some business to resolve here before that.” It was a complete lie: Mhu-qwi was a district known for its plentiful goods—which were brought in by demons from distant territories—and being remarkably peaceful despite how many interactions were made between strangers. In other words, Hyin-su-o hoped he could help Liang San expand his horizons. And he hoped that Liang San might enjoy himself or leave with some positive impression of the demon race.
“I see,” said Liang San. “Should the attendants unload—”
“No need to concern yourself with these matters. Come with me,” the Emperor instructed tonelessly, pointing with his chin toward the settlement. From faraway, it looked quite like a port town from the human empire, replete with wooden infrastructure and bustling decks. As they closed the distance, Liang San realized that it did not look like a human port town: it was a human port town. Or it had once been, anyway.
The demon seemed to sense Liang San’s questioning gaze on his back: “Perhaps you have already guessed: Mhu-qwi was a seaport used by the Empire of Yun, abandoned upon our arrival and now overseen by various demonic tribes. It has been agreed upon as an autonomous region, over which even the Emperor holds no sway.” He produced a silver coin from his pocket, threw it at the chattering owner of a stall, and swept up a pair of woven rice hats: one proffered to to Liang San and the other for himself.
Capital was the god of the mortal realm, and it appeared to be the true ruler of the demon realm as well. Accepting the half-assed disguise, Liang San nodded in new understanding: their base natures turned out to be quite similar. The headwear was overly large and clunky, so he had to keep it propped up with a hand to see.
The streets were half-paved and slick with who-knows-what while many wooden stands or buildings had rotted inelegantly. There was a strange and fishy charm to the place, like stepping back two centuries, back when it was still the old coastal town of Miaosu. Liang San could make out the bartering of some traders and was enlivened by all the noise and bustle. He had made it into the world again, after months cooped up in the palace!
The human could not help a secret smile from crawling onto his lips as he took in the sights and smells and sounds. Just how low had he fallen? Even the briny stench of ocean and sweat could bring him happiness now!
Wandering around aimlessly for an hour, the pair discussed specialty wares from different tribes: pottery, foraged spices or herbs, oil, meats, pelts, alcohols, and timber among them. Generally, it was Liang San who was attracted to a tricket like a moth to a flame. Hyin-su-o followed without protest, occasionally bending over to examine something the small human had found and providing a comment on its quality. Even the Emperor’s muttering of “it’s a scam” or “what a worthless plaything” could not dampen Liang San’s mood or slow the spring in his steps. Just observing Liang San’s little feet, faster than dragonflies over water, was exhausting.
Before long, the human had strayed off the pier and found a side trail onto the rocky shore. Hyin-su-o stared, strolling along slowly, as Liang San shuffled toward the dark water. With the sky so clouded and colorless overhead that the time of day was ambiguous, the ocean naturally did not appear welcoming. Yet the mortal drew so close that the tide almost licked his toes. Then, he crouched down with his heels flat against the wet pebbles and sand.
Forgetting that it was the Demon Emperor behind him and not Yun-sik-un, Liang San extended an arm and gestured for his companion to hurry on over.
“Look,” Liang San whispered, upon hearing the sound of breathing near his ear. “Careful, don’t make large movements. If you squint your eyes, there are tiny, tiny fish over on the right. Do you see them? They resemble black dots, really very tiny.”
“Oh,” said Hyin-su-o after a few seconds of searching. “I can see them.”
Flicking his eyes in the Emperor’s direction, the human gave a soft “mn.”
“They are really very tiny,” Hyin-su-o acknowledged. The two figures, both enrobed in gray cloth and topped with rice hats, squatted on the beach for a duration. Liang San would point out something noteworthy, and Hyin-su-o would find it and agree. After the mortal bored, they headed back onto the wooden dock and checked out more trader’s stands.
The entire time, Liang San did not so much as think to purchase anything: he had nothing of worth on his body and he could not shamelessly borrow money from the Demon Emperor himself. It was Hyin-su-o who had to ask, “Are you hungry?” Truthfully, the demon was beginning to feel the onset of fatigue and desired a break to rest his legs.
The mortal almost gave an honest answer of “not at all!” before he thought it over. Generally, when another asked if you were hungry, that indicated that they themselves wanted something to eat. Since the Demon Emperor wished to stop for a meal, how could he refuse? Liang San stood, raised his gaze to Hyin-su-o’s face, pushed up the woven rice hat with a finger, and smiled politely: “Where shall we go?”
“Would fish be alright?” Hyin-su-o asked.
Originally, back when he had lived in comfort and plenty at his father’s residence, Liang San enjoyed consuming saltwater fish and other seafood. They were a rare delicacy, considering how far the Liang family resided from the coastal cities, and the taste was quite agreeable. However, once Liang San had secured ownership of the demon garden and those ponds with carp and goldfish, he did not know if he could ever again stomach the idea of chewing up his babies. But the Emperor had suggested it, so how could Liang San say no?
They soon found themselves in a run-down tavern, a makeshift bar of sorts. The thatched roof was so worn that it leaked. Drip-drop. Drip-drop. Liquid of an unknown origin fell from the sky and contaminated their shared dish of roasted pilchard, still untouched.
Liang San fumbled with his chopsticks, put off. Hyin-su-o, likewise, did not give the impression of being eager to dig in. They had chosen this particular spot because it seemed busy and noisy, but demons—especially these traders who were starving, unpicky, and desperate—would put anything into their mouths as long as it could be washed down with wine. Liang San and the Demon Emperor were by far the most quiet and still table.
Finally, Hyin-su-o broke the silence by calling for a flask of wine. Liang San revived in an instant, tracing the earthen vessel with his vision until it left demon hands and was placed upon their table.
Without pause, the human reached out for the flask and poured the Demon Emperor a cup before filling his own to the brim. Unsure of the demons’ drinking customs, Liang San nudged his cup against Hyin-su-o’s on the table and lifted it toward his own mouth. Not bothering to maintain his manners, the human emptied his portion in one go and peered back at the Emperor.
Liang San was the kind of man who would drink directly from the flask if he was at home. Indeed, the familiar warm sensation in his throat and belly was incomparably satisfying! How had he managed to abstain from alcohol for so long? Ah, right, the demon palace.
Concealing amusement behind his cup of wine, Hyin-su-o was about to take a reserved sip when he was interrupted by...
The Emperor elevated his gaze from the table to Liang San’s freckled face. Obediently, he placed the cup back down and waited for the human to explain his warning.
“E-Emperor Hyin-su-o, it is nothing,” said Liang San sheepishly. “Only, I feel that this alcohol is of low quality, poorly made. It tastes abnormal and such a wine does not befit the Emperor’s status. Perhaps it is best not for the Emperor to indulge.” The wine had nothing wrong with it—went down smooth and strong, actually: maybe too strong—but Liang San had just remembered that Hyin-su-o’s health was compromised. An old acquaintance, a friend or maidservant maybe, had advised him never to consume alcohol while sick. Unsurprisingly, Liang San had done so anyway and suffered the consequences. So, in a way, yes, it was best not for the Emperor to indulge in wine while he was...unwell.
Hyin-su-o nodded languidly: “If it tastes abnormal, do not drink anymore.” He himself had ordered the wine, knew how it had been stored, and was aware that it was perfectly safe. But Liang San had instructed him not to drink, so he naturally did not argue. “And as our identities are hidden, do not refer to me as ‘Emperor’ here. An address of ‘Hyin-su-o’ will suffice.”
This second part was unnecessary, but the demon wished to hear Liang San call him by his name. Was Hyin-su-o succumbing to greed by playing at this harmless deception? Maybe.
Apparently that one cup of demon wine had an alcohol content higher than Liang San was accustomed to, because he was soon spewing out nonsense. All his inhibitions had been burned away into ash, so the words flowed out without end.
“And so I told her—I told her…”
“To feed the first pond that amount and feed the second pond this amount?” Hyin-su-o offered helpfully.
“Exactly!” Liang San looked surprised, scratching at his cheek. “Hey, hey. How did you know?”
The mortal had already repeated this anecdote upwards of four times, how could the Demon Emperor not know what the next line was? Hyin-su-o snorted: “It was a lucky guess.”
Liang San hopped from topic to topic like a flea from dog to dog. It went from indecipherable accounts of personal stories to an impassioned discussion of garden maintenance. Hyin-su-o understood close to nothing about the art form, but Liang San conveniently filled in all the gaps in his knowledge, so the demon was able to turn around and throw his answers right back.
“Did you know, I have never met someone so similar to myself! Hyin-su-o, sir, you are really so well informed!” praised Liang San, exceptionally pleased and red in the face. “How coincidental that we have matching views on landscaping!”
“How coincidental,” the Emperor echoed, a smile softening his voice.
Liang San flashed a dopey grin as he said, “When we return home, you should come visit my garden more often. I think it might please you!”
The Demon Emperor stiffened noticeably at the phrase of “return home.” Liang San, that foolish fellow, was too loose with his words: if he kept going, Hyin-su-o might really start to believe that the human considered the demon palace their “home.”
Home. How could Liang San ever call that place home? Hyin-su-o nodded slowly, absently, and did not say anything more.
Too intoxicated to notice the shift in mood, Liang San carried the entire rest of the conversation on his one tongue. He talked about Yun-sik-un, brocaded carp, Yun-sik-un again, cranes, and at last fell silent. Yes, he had drank himself silly, but he had not completely lost control. Every subject Liang San touched upon was lighthearted and jovial: he did not mention his initial fear of Hyin-su-o, his kidnapping, his sworn brothers, the assassination of the Minister of Taxation, his father, his mother.
Maybe the effects of the alcohol were gradually wearing off, because darker thoughts started gnawing at the happy dream world he had woven, strand by strand. Liang San rubbed his eyes, looked up, and noted that Hyin-su-o was peering straight back at him.
Right, this was his changed life. Some parts of that happy dream world no longer had to be imagined by himself, because they now existed in reality—he had two individuals who he could name as friends, true friends who did not ask or want anything of him.
The weight in Liang San’s heart suddenly felt much lighter.