It wasn’t the first time Shang Qinghua had fled north.
The angry cries of fellow peak lords and their disciples lingered fresh in his mind. It was only thanks to the precarious peace between the two realms that he had been able to escape their wrath. The group pursuing him refused to cross the border, wisely unwilling to risk offending their tentative allies.
It was almost enough to lose oneself in a moment of nostalgia, even though it had only been a short time since his last defection.
Shang Qinghua scurried past the servants of Mobei Jun’s underground fortress, head low and nerves high, until he reached the safe haven of his bedchambers. Though he had been granted the room many years ago, it was only during his extended stay that it had become a room that was undeniably his—a table stacked high with half-full books, the scatterings of inprogress talismans and questionable artifacts that he hoarded as a just-in-case, and several more pillows than would be customary on a single divan. His requests to have it left untouched were unexpectedly heeded, and the candle stubs and discarded melon seed shells of his previous visit remained right where he had left them.
Dumping his bag on the floor, Shang Qinghua finally allowed himself a bedraggled breath. Liu Qingge’s insults, Yue Qingyuan’s disappointed expression, Qi Qingqi’s smug face… Even his own disciples had attempted to surround him before he was able to slip away thanks to his knowledge of every An Ding Peak nook and cranny.
It wasn’t long into a facedown nap that a demanding growl forced him awake. After hiding for days in his Leisure House in hopes his deception would not be discovered, his stomach desperately craved food that didn’t come from a stash beneath the floorboards.
Shang Qinghua rolled off the divan and made his way to the door. The moment he opened it, he was met with the familiar knot of another man’s throat.
“My king!” He squeaked in surprise, jumping back to allow himself room for a reflexive bow.
Mobei Jun stood there in his usual splendor—adorned in dark brocades of blue and silver, jawline sharp, and gaze piercing—with a slightly less common windswept look to his hair and a sheen to his skin that suggested he had only just returned.
Shang Qinghua exhaled slowly as the tension left his shoulders. “A wise observation, my king, and with your permission I will be for the forese--”
“Your sect is looking for you.”
“Ah?” Shang Qinghua looked up at him, meeting Mobei Jun’s eyes. “You heard...? That is, I mean to say, they are?” He smiled.
“Mmn. I’m here to deliver you to them.”
“What?!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed as Mobei Jun stepped into the room towards him. “Why?!”
An unmoved expression was matched by a frustrating silence.
With little room to maneuver, Shang Qinghua backed up several more paces only to find Mobei Jun matching them step by step. “My king, if...if you don’t wish me here, then I’ll just leave.”
Mobei Jun furrowed his brow. “You’ll come with me.”
The finality of his words sent Shang Qinghua’s nerves alight. “No, no, no! You don’t understand—this’ll be the end for me, my king! Death would be compassion, a mercy! I’ll be locked away with the key smelted from the leftovers of my iron shackles!” Shang Qinghua babbled wildly, continuing to back away as Mobei Jun loomed ever closer. “You...you could even beat me five, er, four times a day and I wouldn’t complain! Not a word! I’ll mend your socks and sort your robes and, my king, please, why are you doing this...?”
“They offered me something you were never able to provide,” Mobei Jun replied coldly. Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened as he turned to flee, only to have the back of his collar grabbed.
Desperate pleas fell on deaf ears as he was dragged the entire way back to Cang Qiong Mountain, kicking and screaming.
“Laozi will never forgive you…” Shang Qinghua muttered. A gentle summer breeze licked at the corners of the scroll in front of him, bringing with it only a further sense of suffocation.
It had been five days since Mobei Jun had dropped him back on An Ding Peak and into the hungry maw of this year’s annual budget reports. Every major purchase, every insignificant repair, every compensation for damages, down to every single thread of the robes provided to new disciples—all of it surrounding him in piles of books, scrolls, and errant scraps to be totaled, summarized, and filed away.
Mobei Jun adjusted his crossed legs from where he laid back on the bed—both arms tucked behind his head and his eyes closed. “Complaining makes you work slower.”
Shang Qinghua petulatntly kicked the leg of his desk, as if it inconvenienced anyone but himself. “The great lord of demons is no better than a tawdry maiden, parting her skirt for the man with the bigger pouch.” He grumbled bitterly.
“You wish to die that badly?”
“Yes! Yes, I wish to die!” Shang Qinghua exclaimed dramatically, throwing up his arms. The brush flew from his hand and clattered to the wooden floor.
Lifting another brush while coughing into his other hand, Shang Qinghua asked, “Will you at least tell me what was of such value to you, my king? I’d like to know the price of my freedom.”
“A vacation,” Mobei Jun hummed.
Shang Qinghua gasped in offense. “What do you need a vacation from, ah? And, wait...” He squinted. “...how could Yue-shixiong give you a vacation...?”
Mobei Jun lazily turned over to face him, propping his temple on one hand and looking far too pleased with himself. “Not mine.”
Realization came slowly to Shang Qinghua, blossoming on his face in a brilliant flush of red. “Ah?! Mine?!”
Mobei Jun held up three fingers.
Mobei Jun didn’t move.
Mobei Jun frowned.
That earned the makings of a smirk. “For three months no one from this sect may call upon you.”
Shang Qinghua was stunned.
Three months? Three months! It was one thing to be on the run and leave his peak scrambling in his absence—it was an entirely different matter to have things handled so that he could return to it in working order with no fears of being hunted in the meantime. Perhaps there would even be a stipend approved!
Visions of lazy mornings in a soft bed, tables spread end to end with mouth-watering food, and even a sandy beach or two flooded his mind, seeping into a faraway grin on Shang Qinghua’s face.
“Of course you will spend it with me.”
The visions popped like a balloon.
Shang Qinghua wanted to cry.
“Aha, of course, my king. That is to be expected…” Disappointment clung to his words but he looked back to him with a subservient smile, chastising himself for thinking anything different. “What would you have me do?”
Mobei Jun closed his eyes, rolling back over so he was again facing the ceiling, arms lazily behind his head. “Whatever you want.”
“Hm?” Shang Qinghua perked up cautiously. “What was that?”
“Whatever you want.” He repeated. “Wherever you want to go, we will go.”
It took a moment for the meaning to settle.
Mobei Jun didn’t dignify the question with a response, but Shang Qinghua was sure he saw a little tick of his brow.
Suddenly the demon lord was slotted into all his previous vacation fantasies and, somehow, it really didn’t seem so bad. Shang Qinghua smiled brightly. “I have plenty of ideas then!”
Shang Qinghua’s giddy chuckles filled the room as he returned to his work refreshed. He supposed, just this once, he could forgive the betrayal.