Shang Qinghua, immortal cultivator, An Ding Peak Lord, humble servant to the Demon King of the North, and shameless former stallion novel author, was having a bad day. Week. Month. Entire second lifetime?
The world in which he found himself was still, after decades, too strange for him to fully grasp. Everywhere he looked it was full of creatures and plants that defied description, peerless beauties, stunning swordsmen, demons too vile for words. He knew exactly why: as Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky he'd perfected the art of oblique, hand-wavy descriptions. It had saved him spending time on worldbuilding when he was churning out Proud Immortal Demon Way day after day, back when he had been hunched over a sticky keyboard in much the same way he bent over the low table before him now.
Fuck his past self for thinking low tables and sitting on the floor was elegant for cultivators, seriously. Would it have killed him to have written a world with chairs and proper back support? Shang Qinghua thought longingly of the thick memory foam cushion he'd had for his shitty desk chair. Even the memory of the chair's janky arms, the left one that popped up and down at random now, seemed hazy and delightful. What he'd give for a properly padded chair!
"...you're not listening."
Shen Qingqiu sat across from him. The man was poised and perfect, radiating serenity and grace with every line of his body, almost exactly as Shang Qinghua had written the novel's scum villain. Only his expression, for once not hidden behind a fan, was off-kilter, amused and knowing in an almost gleeful way.
"You mean to tell me you don't remember," Shen Qingqiu — no, Shang Qinghua thought, that tone of voice was one hundred percent Cucumber-Bro — demanded. His voice rose, incredulous, as if they had never had this conversation before. "You wrote this shitty book!"
"I wrote a lot of shitty books, bro!" Shang Qinghua protested. "And I wrote this book so fast, how am I supposed to remember every single detail when I was churning out ten thousand words a day!"
Cucumber-Bro snorted, graceless as an angry horse.
What? Shang Qinghua may have been a hopelessly urban shut-in, but he'd had YouTube, okay? He'd known what sounds all kinds of animals made even before he transmigrated! And he'd had to be a delivery cart driver enough times as an outer disciple that he knew exactly how slobbery horses could be too. Disgusting animals. Why hadn't he written in cultivation-powered cars, really?
"You'd better be glad you didn't write in cultivation-powered cars," Cucumber-Bro said, and Shang Qinghua felt himself flush at the realization that he'd been thinking out loud again. "They'd be a nightmare. Can you imagine Liu-shidi trying to drive?"
Shang Qinghua imagined the War God of Bai Zhan Peak driving, and shook his head almost frantically at the imagined carnage. It would be something between a demolition derby and a flying car version of Formula One, and he didn't want to think about it any more, ever again.
"So you do have some sense," Cucumber-Bro observed. "I was starting to wonder."
"Bro!" Shang Qinghua protested, though for Cucumber-Bro that was almost a compliment. "You're the only one who can help me!"
He could feel tears starting at the corners of his eyes and tacitly encouraged them. Crying always worked better on Yue Qingyuan and Mobei Jun than on his biggest anti-fan, but it was still worth a try.
Cucumber-Bro looked at him and shook his head.
"You really have no shame, do you," he observed. He didn't sound at all surprised.
What shame! Shang Qinghua wanted to yell. You try pouring your heart and soul into several literary novels and having them panned by readers only to have a shitty one-shot piece of smut take off like a rocket. Try losing your entire novel outline and having to lay a million different prospective plot-trails day by day, always at the whim of readers! Try having to destroy your best characters, all of your carefully-crafted narrative foils, because angry anti-fans are calling for them to be castrated! Try never being able to put in any of the backstory for your side characters because fans just want more papapa! And then try waking up in an infant's body and having to learn everything about a new world where you're nothing but cannon fodder! What use was shame!
This time he managed to keep his mouth shut. Shang Qinghua only shook his head, forcing a watery smile.
"None!" he proclaimed. "Bro! You have to help me figure out what's going on!"
Cucumber-Bro stared at him, utterly unimpressed, and Shang Qinghua felt a tear begin to leak down the side of his face, moving without any conscious intent this time.
He couldn't help it, okay? He was tired and stressed out and very confused! His king was acting really weird and his disciples were all whispering behind his back, and he didn't know what was going on! Cucumber-Bro was his only hope!
Cucumber-Bro pulled a handkerchief out of his sleeve, and shoved it at him.
"Stop muttering and clean yourself up," he said. "You already told me Mobei Jun was acting weird, and you always think your disciples are whispering behind your back. That's because they are. And that is your own fault, because you're never here. You're going to need to give me more detail about this thing with Mobei Jun if you want any help."
Shang Qinghua took the handkerchief and wiped his eyes, then blew his nose loudly. Cucumber-Bro made a face.
"You're washing that before you give it back," he said. "It's not a kleenex, bro, you can't just throw it in the trash."
Shang Qinghua blew his nose again, louder, more than halfway out of spite, and shoved the sodden handkerchief in his sleeve. He'd remember to give it back later. Maybe.
... probably not.
Cucumber-Bro glared at him. "So," he said, prompting, "Mobei Jun is acting weird."
"So weird!" Shang Qinghua agreed. "I don't know what to do, bro, he's always around, like, hovering, and he keeps trying to feed me, and he gave me his favorite cloak and won't take it back, and he got angry when I tried to come back to take care of An Ding Peak paperwork! I had to sneak out!"
Put like that it didn't sound all that alarming. But it was weird, okay! It was definitely weird! His king hadn't beaten him up in weeks! He'd been gentle, almost, as if he thought Shang Qinghua was going to break if he poked him too hard!
"This cloak has the fur of a snow-spotted leopard-bear," Shang Qinghua insisted, tugging it closer around his neck. "He killed it himself! Why would he give it to me!"
He liked it a lot, all right, sure, it was cozy and soft and warm and heavy and it reminded him of his king, but that wasn't the point: he didn't want to mess it up, and be killed for managing to tear holes in his king's favorite cloak. Snow-spotted leopard-bears were hard to kill, vicious and fast and sharp-clawed, and even harder to find. He couldn't replace this if he did something to it!
"Hm," Cucumber-Bro said. He packed a world of judgment into that one sound. "So. He's being nice to you. That's the problem?"
Shang Qinghua stared at him.
"Yes!" he yelped, "It's weird! He's not even beating me up anymore!"
"Binghe does all of that," Cucumber-Bro pointed out.
Shang Qinghua felt his jaw drop. What was that comparison! Sure, his son fed Cucumber-Bro, and dressed him in fancy clothes, and hovered around him, and didn't like him going places alone, and treated him like he'd break or melt in the rain. But that was because they were banging! Surely Shang Qinghua would have noticed if he and his king were doing the horizontal tango!
"That!" he sputtered. "That's completely different! You bent my son, it's totally not the same thing at all!"
Cucumber-Bro raised one elegant eyebrow, expression conveying worlds of disdain and disbelief without a single word.
"Were you always this stupid?" he asked, destroying the illusion of other-worldly beauty with the familiar harsh words of Shang Qinghua's favorite, most dedicated anti-fan. "Or is it a side-effect of keeping your sorry excuse for a brain in that Northern meat-locker of a palace for this long?"
Shang Qinghua huffed out a sharp breath, indignation swelling inside himself at the implied insult to his king.
"It's not a meat-locker," he insisted. It was absolutely a meat locker, but he wasn't going to let someone else complain about its temperature and insult his king's hospitality. "It's an ice palace! You'd know that if you'd ever bother to come to the north anymore. You're gone so often, my king practically rules the Demon Realm now that you stole my son away from his plotline."
"What a shame," Cucumber-Bro said, voice as dry as the eastern deserts. "He was so much happier in your original plot. Oh," he said, and his gaze was hard in a way that was never good, "wait —"
Shang Qinghua huffed again, this time in frustration.
"That's not the point," he said, trying desperately to drag the conversation back on track and away from any memory of how unhappy that other dimension's Luo Binghe had been. "The point is you'd know it's not that cold if you two ever were around, and maybe then I'd have less paperwork to do for my king, and I could take some time off."
He wasn't entirely sure what he'd do with time off, mind you: there weren't many places he could go near the Northern Palace that were human-friendly, even with a cultivator's sword and his admittedly somewhat limited martial training. And whenever he went back to An Ding Peak he just had more paperwork to do there. But it was the thought that counted, right?
"And do what?" Cucumber-Bro demanded. "You hate having nothing to do."
That was...not entirely inaccurate.
"That's not the point!" Shang Qinghua wailed. "I could enjoy being bored!"
Cucumber-Bro stared at him, expression carefully blank. He waited, and the silence was more judgmental than most of the forum posts Shang Qinghua had read over the years.
"I could learn to enjoy being bored! But that’s not the point. The point is," Shang Qinghua insisted, "my king is acting weird and you have to help me figure out why!"
"I did," Cucumber-Bro said. "You're not listening."
"You did not. You're full of shit, and I think he's possessed, or something, and you have to help me figure out who did it!" Shang Qinghua paused, then tried to appeal to shameless self-interest. "If my king ends up possessed, Luo Binghe will have to spend a lot more time in the Demon Realm, and you'll be stuck there too."
Cucumber-Bro took a sip of his tea, obviously unmoved by this line of argument.
"What if Mobei Jun dies!" Shang Qinghua wailed. "I'll be killed by his uncle! You wouldn't let that happen! Who would you talk to about missing wifi and microwaves and — and shitty internet message boards!"
"Binghe," Cucumber-Bro called. "Stop lurking, it's poor manners."
Luo Binghe, protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way, Junshang, heavenly demon, master swordsman and impossibly whipped house-husband, pushed open the door to the bamboo hut with one foot, hands full with an enormous tray of steaming, freshly home-cooked dishes.
"Is he joining us, shizun?" he asked, his tone clearly indicating that he would love nothing more than to shove Shang Qinghua out the door. Possibly with his foot. Probably at high speed.
"Don't be rude," Shen Qingqiu chided, slipping back into character seamlessly. He was once again the peerless Xiuya Sword — a big shift from the angry millennial anti-fan, but no less reliable for his nearly eidetic memory of the novel that Shang Qinghua had churned out at such a fast clip. Most of the details were long gone from Shang Qinghua's memory, if he'd ever bothered to remember them in the first place. "You know Shang-shidi is welcome."
Binghe put the tray on the table with a sullen click and went to kneel beside his husband, visibly pouting. Where was his pride, Shang Qinhua thought! How had his OP protagonist turned into this sticky disciple!
Shen Qingqiu handed out bowls. Luo Binghe had clearly cooked enough for more than three, everything from pulled noodles to bright vegetable dishes specked with spice. Shang Qinghua's mouth watered just looking at it. The protagonist's legendary cooking skills! He would finally get to partake of them again at long last!
Luo Binghe placed all the best bits of each dish in Shen Qingqiu's bowl, glaring at Shang Qinghua and knocking his chopsticks aside. Still, the food was delicious. Shen Qingqiu kept the conversation going with discussion of a monster his disciples had sighted recently, proving yet again that his memory for the creatures and plants of this world was — truly — unparalleled.
If Shang Qinghua ate a little too much, well, that was his own problem, wasn't it! If Luo Binghe was going to interrupt his conversation with Cucumber-Bro before he could get any kind of clear answer, then he could just put up with having company over a meal, no matter how cranky he seemed to be about someone else eating his home-cooked dishes.
* * *
Back at the Northern Palace the next morning, Shang Qinghua stared at the paperwork on his desk. He was thinking carefully about requisition orders and logistics. He was definitely thinking carefully about logistics. He was definitely not petting the snow-spotted-leopard-bear fur of the cloak he still had draped around his neck and feeling his brain whirr like an overloaded computer processor in full-freak-out mode. Definitely not.
Oh, who the hell was he kidding. He was one thousand percent freaking out.
Damn Cucumber-Bro's observations, anyway. Mobei Jun couldn't be doing all these things for the same reasons as Luo Binghe! It was impossible! For fuck's sake, Mobei Jun was his ideal man, the one tiny part of the book he'd kept for himself even when fans objected. Shang Qinghua was nearly-nameless cannon fodder. There was no way! It was completely impossible!
Shang Qinghua buried his face in the ridiculously soft fur at the neck of his king's cloak — the one he'd been wearing for weeks now — and muffled an incoherent scream.
When he looked up, his king was standing before him, features set in a dark scowl.
"Augh!" Shang Qinghua yelped, and nearly fell out of his chair. "My king!"
He tried to scramble to his feet and only managed to almost knock the chair over and himself with it. Only Mobei Jun's quick reflexes and strength saved him from wiping out. As it was, Shang Qinghua found himself boxed in between his king's chest and the back of the chair, the chair itself teetering on two legs until his king leaned back casually and pulled the chair back up to rest all four feet on the ground.
"You are distressed," Mobei Jun observed. He was still holding onto the back of the chair, leaning across the desk with one hand planted in the center of the desk for balance. Shang Qinghua was definitely not noticing that his king smelled good, crisp and sharp in a way that reminded him of the few winter trips his family had taken out of the city in his childhood. Shang Qinghua shook his head to clear it, and Mobei Jun's frown deepened.
"You were yelling," Mobei Jun said. "You do that when you are unhappy."
Shang Qinghua bit back a scream. Of course his king had to come in just as he was screaming into the cloak. Oh no, he thought. What if he'd gotten spit on the fur, what if his king was angry about the cloak.
"No, no!" Shang Qinghua said. "I'm fine! I was just a little frustrated!"
Mobei Jun looked at him, then stepped back.
"I'm fine!" Shang Qinghua insisted. "I wasn't yelling! Just — I'm fine!"
It was a good thing he hadn't made Mobei Jun a fire demon, Shang Qinghua thought. The force of that incredulous glare would probably have incinerated the papers on his desk, and the whole desk too, for good measure. As it was, the temperature in the room dropped dramatically. Shang Qinghua snuggled a little further into the cloak in self-protection, and Mobei Jun's expression cleared a little bit.
"Your business at your Peak was not satisfactory?" his king demanded. He sounded unhappy. Don't be so angry at this servant for going away, my king!
But wait! How did he know Shang Qinghua had gone to Cang Qiong? Just because Shang Qinghua had used the teleportation talisman, and he'd never bothered to write in the details of how that particular magic worked, did that mean Mobei Jun could track him anywhere he went? Would know where he was?
That...probably shouldn't be reassuring. Probably Shang Qinghua should be worried about having a stalker. An insanely OP, portal-opening, impossible-to-avoid, very handsome, ice-demon stalker. But this world was dangerous, and his king was so good at killing dangerous things. And besides, wasn't it kind of reassuring to know he was paying attention?
"No, no!" Shang Qinghua said, a moment too late. "It was fine! It was all fine! I was just...I was just thinking."
"Mm," Mobei Jun replied. He came around the desk and laid a chill palm against Shang Qinhua's forehead. "You are warm," he said. He sounded confused, maybe concerned.
"I'm not sick!" Shang Qinghua exclaimed. Demon medicine was something he'd only had to take once, and he was never taking it again, ever, no, not him. "I'm fine! I'm supposed to be warm!"
Mobei Jun removed his hand, and tucked his cloak more carefully around Shang Qinghua's neck.
"You should take care," he said, which made no sense at all. When was Shang Qinghua anything other than careful? He wasn't some OP protagonist or War God, to go running out to kill monsters for fun! He knew better!
But Mobei Jun seemed to be waiting for a response.
"Ohh — okay?" Shang Qinghua offered. "I mean, all right, my king. I'll...be careful?"
Mobei Jun looked skeptical.
"It wasn't all bad!" Shang Qinghua tried. "I mean, I got to see Shen Qingqiu? That was nice?"
His king still looked unimpressed. He didn't seem to like Shen Qingqiu all that much, though at least he didn't seem to actively dislike the sight of him anymore.
"I had lunch with him?" Shang Qinghua added. That reminded him about the array of dishes, and the fact that he'd been allowed to eat this time without any of the antics that he'd been subjected to in the past.
"I can't believe Shen Qingqiu gets to eat like that every day," he added, mouth watering at the memory. "Why is Luo Binghe such a good cook, anyway? Those noodles were just —"
Well. He knew exactly why, when it came down to it. But he couldn't very well admit that Luo Binghe's skill at cooking had been designed to woo potential wives for a harem plot that had gone completely off the rails, now, could he?
"You ate with them?" Mobei Jun asked.
Shang Qinghua nodded, and his king's expression smoothed out like still water that had flash-frozen, glassy and impenetrable. That seemed — bad, probably.
Mobei Jun nodded once, sharp and jerky, and just strode out of the room without another word. Shang Qinghua stared after him, baffled. Hadn't his king wanted him to do something? Surely he had forgotten some task or obligation that he'd needed to pass on to Shang Qinghua. Why else would he have shown up unprompted like that?
But his king hadn't left him any more work to do, and he didn't come back. Shang Qinghua took another moment or two (or ten) to fondly remember the food he'd eaten the previous day, and then got back to work making sure none of the retainers he'd been tasked with supervising was siphoning too much out of the accounts they were supposed to manage on behalf of his king and, by extension, Luo Binghe.
The ledgers were neat and tidy, though he was pretty sure at least one of them was written in blood. Shang Qinghua decided not to think about that too hard, and ploughed his way through, making notes in his own increasingly tiny scrawl on a series of scraps of paper. A certain amount of subterfuge was expected, but there was a fine line between clever paperwork and outright disrespect.
"Hah, think I don't see you running a second budgetary line for household goods," Shang Qinghua muttered just as the door opened again. He looked up to see his king standing in the doorway, holding the handle of a very large lacquered food box in one hand. He stepped in, pushed the door closed, and walked over to the low table in the center of the room, the one Shang Qinghua used for formal meetings. He had very few formal meetings, so it was kind of covered in notebooks and bits of detritus he didn't want to trip on. Kind of very covered, really.
Mobei Jun frowned, then set the box down and began tidying the table. Something inside of it smelled amazing even from here. Shang Qinghua forced himself to finish the few lines he had been working on before he looked over again.
"Come here," his king said. There was a bowl of noodles on the table, laid out as formally as if it were a royal banquet.
Shang Qinghua blinked, surprised. Mobei Jun stared right back, and Shang Qinghua hopped to his feet, managing not to knock the chair over this time.
"Of course!" he said, and scuttled to the table. "Um," he moved to kneel across from the bowl, and Mobei Jun pushed him to sit before the noodles. They really did smell good. "Is there — I mean, did this servant forget something? An event?" He paused. “I didn’t miss dinner, did I?” Surely he hadn’t been working that long.
Mobei Jun frowned at him.
"You need to eat," he said.
This was not strictly true. Shang Qinghua might not be the best cultivator of his generation, or even a particularly impressive one, but he had managed to cultivate to the point where inedia was a very real option. If he'd done it mostly to avoid eating some of the more inventive meats served here in the demonic realm, well. Motivation was motivation, right?
"This is for me?" Shang Qinghua asked. He didn't squeak. Much.
"Do you not want it?" Mobei Jun asked. "I made —" he paused, seeming to consider his words carefully. "I chose ingredients you like," he said, finally.
His king had made these for him? Shang Qinghua looked at the bowl again. It smelled so good.
"I want them!" he said, and grabbed for his chopsticks, shoveling too large a bite into his mouth immediately to prove his point.
It was almost as good as Luo Binghe's cooking, which was saying something. Shang Qinghua made a happy noise, and took another bite, then a spoonful of broth. It tasted delicious, salty and clear without any of the weird smokiness or edge of rot that was common in so many of the demonic meats he’d learned to choke down. Mobei Jun watched him the whole time, expression unreadable and intent.
"My king?" Shang Qinghua asked, then finished swallowing and tried again. "My king, don't you want some?"
Someday, Shang Qinghua thought, maybe someday he'd be able to read all of the expressions that crossed his king's face. Right now, though? He was utterly baffled. He reacted by barreling through, because, well, that was what he did, wasn't it.
"Here," he said, and held out a mouthful of noodles. "They're really good, try some."
That almost looked like the barest hint of a smile. Mobei Jun knelt across from him and opened his mouth. And, oh, Shang Qinghua had not thought this through. He was feeding his king, like some kind of romance scene. His hand shook slightly, but he managed not to drop any of the food on the table.
"See?" he asked, as his king chewed, his actions more delicate than anyone had any right to expect of such a large, powerful demon king. "They're good!"
He tried to offer Mobei Jun the bowl, and cool hands settled on his wrists.
"I made it for you," Mobei Jun said. His voice was soft again, so Shang Qinghua didn't protest.
Demons really were so weird about food!
* * *
Some days later, Shang Qinghua was sitting off to one side in the Northern Palace's extremely cold throne room, taking idle notes and trying very hard to keep out of anyone's direct attention. Politics in the demon realm really did involve far more frequent and copious bloodshed than he was comfortable with: why hadn't he considered how much of a pain in the ass all the mopping would be when he'd made this world? At the very least he could have written a throne room with smooth floors instead of elaborate blue and white mosaics that showed blood like a bitch.
A representative from one of the major Southern clans was going on and on about trade routes, which was probably a pretty safe topic, since it didn't involve anyone's honor or anyone's specific territory or anyone's wives. Shang Qinghua tuned out for a moment, toying with ideas for a new story.
He came back to his senses when a spray of shockingly hot blood splashed across his face, wet and sulphurous. He slammed his mouth shut and closed his eyes instinctively, but he could feel it dripping down the front of his robes. Someone was very, very dead, and he was drenched. His robes, a fairly new light blue and white set his king had commissioned for him recently, would probably never be the same again, no matter how much washing-wizardry the laundry staff applied to them. He fumbled in his sleeve for a cloth, and wiped his face clean enough to open his eyes.
When he blinked them open, Mobei Jun was standing in the midst of a pile of partially-dismembered bodies, all from the Southern clan's so-called trade delegations. Many of them were armed with assassins' weapons, which made it pretty clear this hadn't been a trade delegation — or hadn't only been a trade delegation.
"My king!" Shang Qinghua exclaimed. Mobei Jun was almost untouched by the blood that was running in rivulets across the mosaic floor, only a small spray of bright green marking one high cheekbone.
“Stay there,” Mobei Jun commanded.
“Sha Hualing,” his king called.
She breezed over, not a spot of blood on her, and dipped a bow that fluttered her veils in a completely inappropriate way.
“Take the living ones into custody,” he said. “Find out what they know.”
She grinned, sharp and feral, and Shang Qinghua very decidedly did not think about what agonies were in store for her captives. They probably deserved it: they’d tried to kill his king, hadn’t they?
Blood dripped down onto his wrists from the sopping fronts of his robes. They appeared almost to be smoking? That was weird.
Oh shit, he thought, these were Southern fire-lizard demon-folk, and their blood was corrosive! He scrambled to his feet, and started pulling the drenched layers off before they could get down to his skin and really start to hurt. He’d written a human cultivator being tortured with this blood, hadn’t he? Just painting it onto someone’s skin and leaving it for a few minutes caused agony.
Stupid, shitty author, he told himself, and flung the shredding robes into a heap on the floor, where they smoked and spat small almost-sparks. He looked down at himself hastily: no more blood, except on his hands and wrists, but he could wash those soon enough. He was more worried that he’d had to strip down to his innermost robes, which were both scandalously light fabric and very chilly.
A shadow loomed over him, and then he was being wrapped in thick blue fabric.
“My king!” Shang Qinghua protested, blinking up.
Mobei Jun had removed his own outermost court robes, heavy with silver embroidery and pale gems, and wrapped them around Shang Qinghua like a kind of tent.
“You need these!” he protested, sure there was something wrong with wearing his king’s court robes but unable to put his finger on it.
“You reject my offer?” Mobei Jun asked, tone very soft.
“Not at all!” Shang Qinghua replied instantly, because how could he ever reject anything his king gave him? Or loaned him? Or whatever this was. The robes were really very soft.
His hands started to itch.
“I just need to —“ he said, gesturing at his hands.
His king tugged his hands through the sleeves, and made an impatient gesture at a servant, who stepped forward with a bowl of steaming water and several cloths draped over his arm.
“Clean the blood off,” Mobei Jun said. “Then bring him to attend me.”
The servant bowed, perfectly, not spilling a drop of water from the brimming bowl. Another young man — well, another young demon, at least, Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure what was going on there — wiped his hands and wrists clean with what seemed like truly exaggerated care, and then dabbed at his face and neck with slight, nervous touches, as if they expected some kind of punishment for doing what they were told.
“Thank you,” Shang Qinghua said, when they were done, and the water was slightly greenish and smelled weirdly smoky instead of fresh. “I’ll just go get changed, then —“
“No!” the second attendant said, seemingly shocked into speech. “Our king said — you must go sit by him!”
Shang Qinghua looked between the two attendants, who looked as if they feared for their lives, and Mobei Jun's frown, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. His king had just almost been killed; they were probably nervous he would be in a bad mood if he were defied. There was no point risking him taking it out on these kids. Or on Shang Qinghua himself, really.
“Sure,” he said. "Okay. Lead the way."
He allowed the second one to lead him up to a small table set up at the head of the room at his king’s right hand.
“Your notes were destroyed,” his king said. He sounded disapproving.
“That’s all right,” Shang Qinghua said, because he could hardly admit he had been daydreaming a smutty novel instead of paying attention to the demons who had tried to kill his king. “I’ll take new ones, my king.”
The room looked different from here: longer, but also kind of — smaller? It was harder to see the edges of the room and the expressions on the faces of the demons seated in the back ranks of the halls. He wasn't sure he liked it: far too many of the people present seemed to be staring at him, or worse, glaring at him. Shang Qinghua resisted the urge to run away, or shrink into a tiny ball of unconcealed fear, and pulled the robes tighter around his neck, feeling the sleeves fall over his hands.
Sweater paws, he thought, and stifled a nervous giggle.
Brush and paper were set before him as he rolled up the sleeves. After a long moment in which Shang Qinghua did not stare at the servant sluicing down the floor (because it was rude) and definitely did wonder — again — what was in those buckets of water that cleaned the mosaics of green blood so well (no one would tell him even if he asked), court resumed.
Sha Hualing sauntered back in some time later. She was as tidy as if she'd been taking tea with a friend, not torturing prisoners.
"They didn't talk," she said. She sounded torn between disappointment and respect. Several other demons made noises in what seemed almost like approval, and Mobei Jun nodded.
"Dismissed," he said, and stood to leave, eye-catchingly bright in his pale blue under-robes.
The white inner layers of his court outfit peeked out much more obviously without the top layer. It seemed improper to see him like that in his throne room, but Shang Qinghua was wearing that top layer right now. His king hadn't seemed like he wanted them back, and Shang Qinghua was much more likely to feel the cold. And besides, he kind of liked having them rolled up around his wrists, okay?
Shang Qinghua bundled up his papers, at least half of which were notes on the contents of the post-assassination-attempt court business. Well, almost half. He'd gotten a little distracted in the middle there when a good idea for a plot device had snagged him.
When he looked up, Sha Hualing was one of the only demons left in the room, other than the attendant trying to take Shang Qinghua's writing case, and the poor floor-scrubbing crew. She was smiling at him, teeth sharp and white and very, very visible in a frankly terrifying predatory grin.
"Eventful day," she observed, stepping closer. Her eyes scanned him head to toe, seeming to be capable of seeing how long the borrowed robes were on him, even while he was still seated. It wasn't his fault his king was so tall! Well, no, it was exactly his fault, actually. Entirely his own doing. But it wasn't his fault he was so short in comparison! (It was. He tried not to think about that too hard, most of the time. That way lay madness.)
"Not reall—" Shang Qinghua saw her begin to frown and backtracked quickly. "I mean. It's not every day someone tries to kill our king, no. Not recently, at least?"
She looked at him again, and her grin went from predatory to delighted in a heartbeat.
"You really think that's what the main event was," she said. She sounded half-disbelieving and half as if someone had just handed her an invitation to an exclusive, deadly, very dangerous monster hunt. Like he'd given her a present.
"Well. It was certainly an eventful day. Come find me when you figure out why," she offered, and turned to walk away, veils swishing. "Or don't! But I'll be betting on you."
Shang Qinghua heard the attendant stifle a gasp and sighed.
Why didn't anyone just say what they meant! Admittedly, Proud Immortal Demon Way would have been a hundredth as long and earned him far less money if he'd allowed any of the characters to just use their words, but still. You'd think being in the world would allow for some changes! Communication! If even Cucumber-Bro and his son could figure it out, surely it couldn't be that hard.
But there was nothing he could do about that now that Sha Hualing was gone. Shang Qinghua stood, tugged up the borrowed robes so he wouldn't trip on them, and went back to his rooms. The hot bath waiting for him was a pleasant surprise, as were the robes laid out for him in darker shades of blue than he usually wore. They were soft, though.
The court muttered for a few days after that, no doubt unsettled by such a blatant attempt on their king's life. Shang Qinghua followed up on accounts, kept in touch with his wide-flung network of human and demon spies, and tried not to wonder too hard about where his An Ding Peak robes had gone. His wardrobe, usually full of pale green and grey and white robes, seemed to be replacing itself with shades of blue and silver every time he sent something to be cleaned.
And, well, Shang Qinghua wasn't the messiest person in the palace — that would be hard in a palace full of demons who considered a swipe at the jugular a great way to say good morning — he wasn't exactly good at keeping ink off his robes.
Finally, when he was down to only one remaining set of robes in his Peak colors, he gave up on trying to keep dressing like a Peak Lord. Obviously housekeeping had opinions, and just as obviously he wasn't going to figure out what had changed, so he'd just keep that last set of robes aside.
The blue robes were nice, too, so it wasn't as if wearing them was a hardship, even if some of the staff sometimes turned a little bit red when he walked past. There did seem to be an awful lot of overlap between the ones who had supported Mobei Jun's uncle and the ones who seemed to have strong feelings about his new outfits. Probably it besmirched the Mobei line to have a human in their colors or something.
Given that Linguang Jun would have been just as happy to kill his own nephew in pursuit of the family's inherited power and title, Shang Qinghua couldn't say he cared very much for his opinion, or that of his supporters. But he made a note in the back of his mind anyway: his job was to notice things, after all. If he kept drawing attention in these colors, he would have to protest, no matter how nice the robes were. It was so much easier to keep an eye on things when no one bothered to look at him, and it seemed like everyone had been staring recently.
* * *
The summons from Cang Qiong Mountain Peak a few weeks later was almost a relief.
Shang Qinghua's missing robes had not reappeared, and in the last few days his couple of intentionally-plain guan had started being replaced with more elaborate silver and sapphire confections that he was sure he was going to break. Even if he didn't break them, he was going to get his hair stuck in the fiddly bits and have to hack it all off, he was sure.
His king's retainers were acting weird about that change too: if he didn't wear them, half of them scowled, and if he did, the other half looked like they'd been drinking vinegar.
"My king," he said over breakfast, "I have to return to An Ding Peak today. I shouldn't be gone long. And I spent last night making lists of everything that needs to be done?"
His king still looked dissatisfied. Okay, so Shang Qinghua should have remembered the annual meeting earlier, but he'd been distracted by the assassination attempt. And by the weird way some smaller demons kept dragging him around. And the fact that his food was being curated even more carefully recently, so that he didn't get to choose what he ate hardly at all.
He'd been a little bit stressed out, so sue him. He'd still stayed up all night to be sure everything would get done in his absence!
"I will accompany you," Mobei Jun said.
Shang Qinghua blinked.
"You can't!" he exclaimed, and then backtracked to avoid being hit for his temerity at telling his king what to do. "My king, I mean — you have a meeting with the Southern lords! You can't possibly miss that! Especially after, well, everything!"
Shang Qinghua was, honestly, kind of glad to be missing that particular meeting. It was likely to be long, and full of grandstanding, and very, very messy.
Mobei Jun looked at him, gaze intense.
"Fine," he said. "You will be careful."
Shang Qinghua nodded.
"It's a budgetary meeting, my king," he pointed out. "It'll be safer than being anywhere near — I mean — it's going to be boring, that's all. What's the worst that can happen? Shen Qingqiu will probably smack me with his fan when I fall asleep."
But when Shang Qinghua returned to An Ding Peak, wearing his last set of Peak Lord robes, it was to find out that Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu were away. His son had been called away by unrest on the southern borders--rumors of demonic attacks on humans in the borderlands--and Shen Qingqiu had told his head disciple, Ming Fan, to stand in for the meeting.
Shang Qinghua did not mourn the loss of Luo Binghe's cooking. Much. Well, not for long. Not publicly, at least.
He was relieved to see that he had left several sets of robes here, and unpacked the backup robes he'd brought from the Northern Palace just in case into the wardrobe. The colors looked nice together, he thought, and then shut the door before he started pining.
The next few days were a flurry of paperwork and preparation—of course An Ding Peak was in charge of all of the logistics of the annual meeting, in addition to managing all of its own paperwork. Shang Qinghua rolled his sleeves up, wore his oldest and most ink-stained robes, and blessed his past self for getting so good at pulling all-nighters. Between that and his cultivation base, he hardly needed to sleep at all when he pulled this kind of whirlwind paperwork marathon.
Two days before the formal meeting, there was a preparatory session on An Ding Peak. There were representatives from each Peak, though very few of the Peak Lords seemed to have bothered to show up, taking their cue from Shen Qingqiu: if the second-ranked Peak Lord could miss a meeting, after all, it must not be essential. Even Liu Qingge, who was usually content to gaze longingly at Shen Qingqiu at these meetings, seemed to have decided that it wasn't worth paying much attention.
At least Shang Qinghua could trust his disciples here to take excellent notes, so it didn't matter as much if he zoned out while Yue Qingyuan spoke and the other head disciples added items to the agenda. And since Shen Qingqiu was the only one who would recognize pinyin, and he was off with his ridiculous husband, Shang Qinghua could even work on a story when the boredom got too excruciating.
Mu Qingfang was reporting on, well, probably something medical, Shang Qinghua wasn't sure, when — out of nowhere — the entire hall shook.
"Send out the race-traitor!" a booming voice exclaimed. A carpet of small reddish-brown snakes whipped into the hall, and Shang Qinghua lept to his feet with a yell.
"Those are copper-tongued vipers," he yelled, jumping onto his desk to get away from the flood of reptiles. "They're very, very poisonous!"
Liu Qingge got to his feet, looking instantly more interested in the proceedings, and his disciples began to clear a path for the others to leave the hall.
"Send out the traitor!" the booming voice repeated itself, and a wall of flame followed the snakes into the hall. A large, reddish-skinned man strode in its wake, flames licking at his footsteps. Several other demons, both human-shaped and snake-shaped accompanied him.
Shit! Shang Qinghua felt his qi spike with real fear before he reined it in with some effort. Shit, shit, shit! Where was Luo Binghe when he needed him?
That was Nanshan Jun, one of the Southern Fire Lizard demon kings, and he'd roped in some of the Southern Snake Demons, and Shang Qinghua's totally OP son wasn't here — shit, that meant the disruptions in the borderlands had totally been a set-up to get him away from the Peak.
Nanshan Jun glared around the room, sword bare in his hand. His gaze fell on Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan, who were wearing their usual grey and white, then scanned the rest of the room, visibly dismissing them.
"Where is he," Nanshan Jun demanded. "Bring me the traitor, and you may all live."
A portal opened behind Shang Qinghua, and Mobei Jun stepped out into the hall.
"Ambitious words for one who attacks mere humans without warning," Mobei Jun observed, as Liu Qingge's hand flew to the hilt of his sword, and Yue Qingyuan motioned the Bai Zhan War God to remain still.
There was a flash of motion, and Shang Qinghua yelped and dove behind a column as ice swords and a wave of flame collided with a great hissing burst of super-heated steam.
Paint and gilding were already flaking from the blasts of steam, and Shang Qinghua could feel his brain trying to process the costs of restoring An Ding's architecture even as he knew it was not something to worry about right now.
"Take this outside," Yue Qingyuan said, as if this were his Peak. His voice was calm and measured, hand on the hilt of Xuan Su.
Don't draw the sword, Shang Qinghua begged him. I'm sorry I bound it to your life force, please don't draw the sword! Cucumber-Bro will kill me!
The assembled demon minions quailed; Nanshan Jun only laughed, voice echoing in the high-ceilinged reception hall.
"Everyone knows you never fight," he declared.
But that moment of distraction had been all Mobei Jun had needed. When Nanshan Jun attempted to take a step forward, he realized his legs were encased in black ice to the knee, and a dark rime of frost was crawling up his body with astonishing speed.
The gout of flame he threw out was larger this time, almost panicked. It managed to hit Mobei Jun head-on, visibly scorching him despite the uncharacteristically flimsy ice shield he threw up in its path. The steam seemed to do almost as much damage.
Wait! If the shield was so flimsy — that meant his king couldn't maintain the trap and keep himself safe!
Shang Qinghua found himself standing between two demon kings, hands out, sword gripped in a fist that shook only slightly. He really didn't want to get burned alive, but he was less likely to get seriously injured by fire than his king, and he'd heal, right? Mu Qingfang was here.
"Back off," he yelled. "Back off, you shitty, second-rate Final Fantasy knockoff!"
Nanshan Jun stared at him, visibly taken aback.
"You?" he demanded. He looked Shang Qinghua up and down, and in that moment, Liu Qingge struck, beheading the second-most powerful Demon King of the Southern Realms with a single blow.
As expected of the War God! That was truly the man who routinely sparred with Luo Binghe and fought him to a stand-still!
"Wait, shit!" Shang Qinghua yelled, brain catching up with reality as smoking hot, eerily-green blood went absolutely everywhere, all over again. "Liu-shidi, everyone, don't get that on you, it's corrosive!"
He wasn't quite drenched in the acidic blood this time, but he'd need to change fast, and — he turned around to see that his king was mostly all right, though his robes were definitely a lost cause, charred beyond repair.
"I'll just —" Shang Qinghua said, though no one seemed to be listening, as all the Bai Zhan disciples were fighting enormous, fully-transformed snake demons. Liu Qingge seemed to be having the time of his life going after the other fire-lizard demons, and was making a characteristically huge mess in the process. On the other side of the hall, Yue Qingyuan was helping Ming Fan and the other head disciples wrangle the snakes. "I'll just take care of my king, then," he said, to no one in particular.
Mobei Jun actually took his hand to get up, which was definitely a bad sign. His singed robes pretty much gave up the ghost at that point and Shang Qinghua shut his eyes so fast he thought the room might be spinning.
"Your cloak, my king," Shang Qinghua gasped. "Your robes are — not in good shape!"
He heard fabric rustling, and when he peeked, Mobei Jun was holding the cloak shut just above his absurdly trim waist.
Shang Qinghua nodded, feeling like a broken puppet, and all but dragged his king out of the hall, down several paths, and to his rooms in the Leisure Hall, where he rushed them past gaping disciples and into his bedroom.
"A hot bath and a large cold one," he called out into the hallway. "Fast!"
Then he slammed the doors and did his best not to panic.
* * *
The baths had helped. Probably.
They'd at least removed the corrosive demon blood, which was a point in their favor. The experience of seeing Mobei Jun casually stripping out of scorched rags before Shang Qinghua could set up a screen might have taken decades off his lifespan, but — well. He'd survived that part.
Shang Qinghua looked across the room and wasn't sure he'd survive this.
To say his Peak Lord robes did not fit Mobei Jun well would be a catastrophic understatement. They closed at the front, belted to preserve the barest bounds of modesty, but the shoulders strained and the hems barely reached halfway down his calves. The overlapping fronts formed an even deeper vee than usual, barely meeting above his six-pack, and that was only because his king had such a trim waist. Even in multiple layers, Mobei Jun looked positively indecent, like some kind of walking sex dream.
"Please," Shang Qinghua managed. "I can get other robes that will fit better, my king, there's —"
Mobei Jun glared at him, then tugged at the neckline of the robes he had somehow poured himself into.
"No need," he said.
"But —" Shang Qinghua protested.
"Are you unwilling to lend these? Are you rescinding your favor?" Mobei Jun asked. His voice was soft in an unfamiliar way, but Mobei Jun was most dangerous when he sounded calm — Shang Qinghua knew that better than anyone else by now!
"Not at all!" Shang Qinghua backpedaled. "They're all yours, my king. Everything I have is yours!"
The flicker of expression that passed across his king's features might have been satisfaction, but it was gone too fast to be certain. Then his king went to the low table and knelt, causing the robes to split in front, showing off what looked like miles of impossibly pale inner thigh.
My king, Shang Qinghua wailed internally, think of your poor servant's heart!
"I'll —" Shang Qinghua said, feeling his brain start to blue-screen. He needed air. He needed to be somewhere else before he threw himself at his king's feet and confessed all of his most ridiculous lustful feelings and got himself killed for his transgressions. "I'll be right back, my king. Just — stay here? Please?"
Mobei Jun didn't often wander around An Ding Peak, but — looking like this? He couldn't leave Shang Qinghua's rooms looking like this! He'd give someone a heart attack!
"I just —" Shang Qinghua thought fast. "I just need to get us something to eat!"
For some odd reason that made Mobei Jun relax even more. He looked almost pleased as he nodded. Shang Qinghua blinked, trying to clear his vision, and glanced at his king once more before all but running out the door.
Of course, he thought, now he had to go to the kitchens. Surely he knew where the kitchens were. He'd written this universe! But even when he'd written An Ding Peak, he hadn't really thought that much about...layout. He hadn't been one of those authors who had diagrams and layouts and timelines and shit; he hadn't had time for that!
Finally he grabbed a young disciple.
"Take me to the kitchens," he instructed, and then, thinking fast. "Tell me about the processes for kitchen inventory for each peak as we go."
The child, a girl about twelve years old, brightened up at that, and began rattling off more detail than Shang Qinghua could have ever hoped to keep in his head at once. They arrived at the kitchen, and Shang Qinghua wished suddenly to have the System back again. He had no idea what this disciple's name was.
"When did you join An Ding Peak?" he asked again, hoping to triangulate that way.
"I was chosen by your head disciple at the last selection," she said. She looked nervous. "Have I displeased? Did I get something wrong?"
Shang Qinghua could kick himself for writing so many tyrants into this damn book. What made things entertaining in an escapist fantasy was shit to live through! Why did so many of his NPCs have so much trauma!
"No, no," he said, waving his hands a little bit. "You were very impressive! It is clear you care very much!"
She brightened up immediately.
"I have always wanted to help organize the sects!" she proclaimed. "Shizun is kind to single this one out for individual attention!"
Yes, yes, he thought. Why were all the teachers in this universe so shy about giving praise, anyway? Ugh, he could kick his past self, he really could. Maybe Cucumber-Bro had been right when he'd bitched on the forums about the importance of verbal communication and the stupidity of his subplots after all!
"It is clear that you are an attentive student," Shang Qinghua said. "Please write up a short report on what you have learned from this review, and submit it to me directly so I can be sure your shishu knows you have done well."
She all but beamed, seeming genuinely happy at the prospect of more paperwork.
"Thank you, shizun!" she squeaked, and scurried off, leaving Shang Qinghua alone in the small kitchens.
This kitchen was, the disciple had told him, reserved for the use of the Peak Lord. Apparently every peak had a kitchen like this, and very few of them were used regularly. The supplies were refreshed daily, weekly or monthly, moved to the main kitchens to prevent spoilage and waste. It seemed like a huge waste of energy, but it was traditional, and apparently being in charge of a Peak Lord's personal kitchen was an honor.
Shang Qinghua looked around the kitchen, fully stocked, and realized he had no idea where to start. He had been able to cook just fine on an electric stove, sure, and was a master of microwave meals and take-out, but these were wood-fired stoves and ovens! The wok was the size of his torso! How was he supposed to make rice without a rice cooker, anyway?
Finally he pulled some dried lotus seeds into one bowl, some peanuts in another bowl, and then made some tea. There were small osmanthus cakes on a shelf, so he put those on the tray as well. Finally he cut some fruit and put it on a plate. It looked sad and messy, but it would have to do. Maybe it would be a start to the apology he owed his king for letting him get set on fire. Again.
When Shang Qinghua returned, Mobei Jun was leafing through a bestiary. He'd shifted so that he was sitting cross-legged with robes piled in his lap in a way that exposed his legs from mid-thigh all the way down. His ankles were unexpectedly delicate.
Shang Qinghua stifled a small strangled sound. You grew up wearing shorts. You've seen people in bikinis and speedos! he reminded himself. This is no different! You're not some antique pervert, to freak out over someone's ankles! Right!?
It was just — he’d been here longer than he’d been in his original world, and there was a lot of skin, okay? And on top of that, his king's legs were beautiful, lean and muscular and — Shang Qinghua put the tray down on the low table and rushed back to close the doors before anyone got any kind of ideas about what they were doing in here.
"My king," he said. He definitely didn't squeak. Definitely not. "I'm sorry for the delay, I had to — it's not much, but I hope you like it?"
Mobei Jun put the book down carefully, tucking a green ribbon in as a bookmark, and glanced at the tray, expression unreadable. Damn the fashion for webnovels to have silently stoic side-characters! Shang Qinghua could read his king better than most people, sure, but that didn't mean it was easy!
"You made this?" Mobei Jun asked, and his voice was soft again.
"It's not much," Shang Qinghua said. "I — I know it's not much! I can get a proper meal delivered!"
Mobei Jun just looked at him.
"You made this?" he asked again, as if it were important somehow.
Shang Qinghua gestured at it helplessly, feeling like he was missing something. It was just a tray of snacks and some cut fruit as an apology!
"Yes?" he asked. "I mean, I cut the fruit?"
Mobei Jun almost smiled at that. Maybe he would take the apology, after all?
"Good," he said, and reached out to take a piece of starfruit. The motion caused the top of Shang Qinghua's borrowed robes to gape open across Mobei Jun's broad chest, and Shang Qinghua closed his eyes for a moment, biting back a whimper.
Perhaps there was urgent business elsewhere, he thought, mind racing. Perhaps he really needed to go check on — well, not on Liu-shidi, who had obviously been perfectly happy when he hopped onto Cheng Luan to chase the remaining demons away from An Ding Peak. The disciples of the various sects were all fine, and the buildings had been all right, and Mu-shidi would be back at Qian Cao Peak, busy taking care of anyone who'd gotten splashed or bitten. Yue Qingyuan would be sure to look after everyone else. And all of Shang Qinghua's paperwork was in here so he couldn't even go hide at his desk.
"Join me," his king said, and Shang Qinghua gave up.
"Of course, my king," he said, and opened his eyes just in time to see his king lick a trail of juice from the side of his palm. Shang Qinghua took a deep breath, sat down at the table, and promised himself he wouldn't stare. Much. Too much. Not enough to get himself in trouble.
He paused for far too long when Mobei Jun offered him a slice of fruit, holding it out with an insistent gesture and then, when Shang Qinghua didn't immediately take it, seeming almost to hesitate.
"Shang Qinghua," he said. His voice was soft again — dangerously so! — so Shang Qinghua kicked himself back to paying attention, and took the fruit.
"Thank you, my king," he said, automatically. He didn't much care for this particular fruit, which tasted like a weirdly sour cantaloupe with the texture of a kiwi, but it grew well even in the North, and it was his king's favorite.
They ate in silence for a few moments, and Mobei Jun kept offering Shang Qinghua items, as if his king thought he wasn't capable of feeding himself. This servant may not have been able to fight off fire-lizard demons, but that didn't make him completely incompetent at all things!
It was oddly companionable, if Shang Qinghua managed to remember to keep his eyes on his king's face, and not on the broad, sculpted, exposed chest and forearms and...legs. There was a lot of leg going on.
"It's for you, my king," he protested, when his king offered him the last slice of weird maybe-demon-fruit. "I — I cut it for you?"
That probably shouldn't have been a question, but it seemed to make Mobei Jun happy, so maybe it was the right answer after all.
"Hm," his king said, and ate the last piece, before meticulously licking the tips of his fingers. His tongue was shockingly pink, and Shang Qinghua forced himself to look away lest he be caught staring. He'd had enough broken ribs for a lifetime, and all of those for much lesser crimes than perving on his king.
"I —" Shang Qinghua started. He scrambled for something to say. "I — my king, you — let me find you something else to wear?"
Mobei Jun blinked at him.
"Why?" he asked. He stretched slightly, and Shang Qinghua felt his brain try to blue-screen at the sight of his king practically ripping the seams of robes that were definitely too small for him.
"I —" Shang Qinghua thought about Sha Hualing's usual scant assortment of veils, and the outfits he'd seen on other demons in the Northern court, especially on higher-ranking demons, who seemed to regard clothing as some kind of sign of weakness. He allowed himself a bare moment of self-hatred for writing such wildly different clothing norms into this world. "Don't you want to change into something better suited to you?"
His king frowned, and Shang Qinghua decided on a different angle of attack.
"I mean — my robes are too small," he tried again. "Aren't they uncomfortable? Let me find something —"
Mobei Jun looked down at himself, seeming unbothered by the way the robes exposed most of his chest.
"I am not uncomfortable," he said, as if that were the only pertinent point.
"It's inappropriate!" Shang Qinghua yelped. "My king, it's a human thing, but —" he took a quick breath "--it's very inappropriate to be showing that much skin in public! You don't know what people will think!"
Mobei Jun stared at him again with a familiar expression: that was the 'my pet human has clearly gone off his rocker' expression. Shang Qinghua couldn't tell if it was the variety that meant his king would humor him, or the kind where he'd get a swift smack on the back of the head to re-settle his brains. He hurried on.
"Think of your reputation," he pleaded. Think of this servant's heart rate, and desire to stay alive if he keeps perving on you, he didn't say. "It's — please? It's really very —"
He spread his hands, words deserting him, and stared at a point somewhere over Mobei Jun's shoulder.
"Very well," Mobei Jun allowed, if somewhat grudgingly. "I will accept a substitute from your hands, if it is so important."
"Thank you, my king," Shang Qinghua squeaked, and bounced to his feet. He knew exactly where the storeroom was for extra robes in his peak's colors, having been in charge of it as the head disciple. "I'll be right back. Don't —" he glanced down, and saw that the robes had shifted to expose a wrapping of bandages, and the very edge of one nipple beneath them. "Don't go anywhere!"
When he came back with a stack of robes in hand, having bullied the disciple on duty into filling out the forms for him, Mobei Jun stood and began stripping immediately, in plain sight even though there was a screen right there. Shang Qinghua slapped a hand over his eyes, and sat down hard.
This was clearly some kind of trick the universe was playing on him. The System had come back and was fucking with him. That was the only answer that made any kind of sense.
Finally the rustling stopped, and he peeked. His king was fiddling with the belt of his outer robes, every layer perfectly aligned, hair loose over his shoulders. His demon mark shone blue in the room, accenting the white, grey, and pale green of his borrowed robes. Shang Qinghua was relieved to see he had chosen the right size. They were even long enough! Well done, bro, he told himself.
"Isn't that much better? I mean — Now you won't cause any incidents if you —" he stopped when Mobei Jun glanced up, expression set. "Not that you'd cause problems, my king, I just meant — misunderstandings! We don't want any misunderstandings! This is much better."
"Is that so," his king replied. He looked at the clothes folded on the low table, and scowled.
"I will be staying on your Peak tonight," he said, as if that were a normal thing to say, and not a terrifying admission of weakness for a demon who could usually teleport through the shadows and create ice portals with the wave of a hand.
"What?" Shang Qinghua yelped. "I mean, of course, my king. I'll — I'll have them set up rooms —"
"No," his king said. "Here."
Shang Qinghua bowed slightly.
"Of course," he said.
Of course the Peak Lord's quarters would be most appropriate: even the finest guest quarters didn't have the same view, or nearly so comfortable a mattress. People here really did seem to think that an inch of straw was soft enough, and Shang Qinghua had taken years to convince someone to make him a mattress that was actually thick enough and soft enough to sleep on properly.
"Of course, my king," he said. "I'll — see you in the morning?"
Mobei Jun frowned at him.
"These are your rooms," he said. "Stay here."
Well. Shang Qinghua took a breath.
"Of course, my king," he said.
Well, fuck, he thought. There was only one bed. Somewhere, Cucumber-Bro was laughing at him, he was sure. What kind of tropetastic bullshit was the System pulling on him, now?
But the System didn't answer him, didn't even pop up the [Yes] or [Next Time] escape hatch screen he hadn't tried to access in...at least a year, now.
But his king was injured, and he had just saved the peak, and it would be beyond rude to deny him something as simple as a good night's sleep. All the more so if he was indeed so injured as to be unwilling to return to the Northern Palace. His uncle hadn't tried anything in months, but there was no guarantee someone else wouldn't try to take advantage of a moment of perceived weakness. Really, it was very wise of his king to stay here out of sight until he was fully recovered.
"I'll just —" Shang Qinghua ducked into the bedroom and grabbed his favorite pillow and a blanket. "All yours, my king."
"I'll just sleep — here," he said, and patted a long wooden couch.
So Shang Qinghua spent the night on a wooden bench in his outer rooms, wrapped in a blanket, while his ideal man slept one room away, in his very own bed, and the System manifestly refused to respond to any of his increasingly confused queries.
A disciple brought breakfast for two, bowls of creamy congee and a variety of small side dishes, including some sweets, and Shang Qinghua set the table, brewed tea, and finally knocked on the bedroom door.
"My king?" he asked. Mobei Jun was not usually one to rise late.
When he ducked his head in the door, his king was sitting cross-legged on the center of the bed, pulling bandages away from his ribs. The skin beneath was faintly shiny in the way of new-healed burns. It made something in Shang Qinghua's chest hurt to see such lingering harm on his king's usually flawless form.
Evidence of any other injuries would have long-since disappeared by now, but ice demons were weaker against fire. Fucking lazy author, he chided himself. What was he thinking, tossing in those bullshit elemental weaknesses. Demon lords weren’t Pokemon! Well. He'd built this world, and this weakness, so he'd have to find an answer. He wasn't going to let his king get taken down by some up and coming fire-lizard demon trying to claim a throne, that was for sure. Surely he could figure out an amulet or protective talisman.
"My king," Shang Qinghua said. "There's breakfast?"
Mobei Jun nodded, and tossed the rest of the bandages on the bed, pulling his borrowed An Ding Peak robes back on. He looked strange in pale colors, almost wraith-like. He looked a little like Liu-shidi, though that was probably just the stern expression: Liu-shidi didn't have a demon mark, after all. And he never left his hair down around his shoulders to frame his face.
When he saw the food, Mobei Jun paused.
"You cooked all this?" he asked. He sounded almost confused.
"Ahaha," Shang Qinghua managed. "No, no, don't worry, it wasn't me. It's from the kitchens."
If he didn't know better, Shang Qinghua might have thought Mobei Jun looked disappointed. But that made no sense: Shang Qinghua had been a shitty cook even with a gas cooktop and a microwave. His few attempts at actually cooking in this world hadn't killed anyone, sure, but that was about all he could say for them.
"But it's food," Shang Qinghua said. "If my king will...join me?"
They sat at the table, and after a long pause, Mobei Jun began to eat.
That was weird, definitely. He didn't pause like that at home.
Maybe demons were just weird about who cooked their food.
Shang Qinghua didn't remember writing that into the novel. He didn't remember much about demonic food preferences, other than a few details about rotten flesh and other things to make sure readers understood that demons were definitely the bad guys, but there were a lot of things in this world he didn't remember writing. So maybe Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun were just...weird about food? That would explain why Luo Binghe didn't cook for anyone except Shen Qingqiu, and why Mobei Jun had gone all angry and quiet when Shang Qinghua admitted he'd had a meal with the two of them. Right?
Except that didn't really make sense, did it. Luo Binghe cooked for Shen Qingqiu's guests sometimes, and he was pretty sure Mobei Jun had eaten Luo Binghe's cooking before, even if it had only been while they were traveling and doing everything over a campfire.
But — why would his king be so cross about Shang Qinghua eating at Qing Jing Peak? Why had he asked to be sure Shang Qinghua had been the one who had cut the fruit and frowned at the kitchen having prepared the congee this morning? It was almost like it mattered to his king who was making the food he ate.
Oh, Shang Qinghua thought, and he could almost feel everything slot into place. It must be a poisoning sub-plot! He hadn't written too many of those in for the side-characters, but there were so many poisons in this world.
The meal passed in companionable almost-silence, as Shang Qinghua muttered under his breath about paperwork and repairs, and his king half-ignored him. It took some effort to keep his thoughts about fire-protective talismans to himself, but that was going to be a surprise, dammit. Really, it was.
It was only when Shang Qinghua stood to go about his day that he realized Mobei Jun was apparently planning on just — hovering? Instead of going back to the North?
"My king," he protested. "You're not supposed to be here!"
His king raised an eyebrow, visibly unimpressed.
"It will make things take longer," Shang Qinghua tried. "I have so much work to get done, and — won't there be unrest on the border, now that Nanshan Jun is dead? Shouldn't you tell Luo Binghe? Consolidate your forces?"
That appeared to work, at least. His king nodded, and opened a portal in the middle of the room.
"Be safe," he said.
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but he just clapped a hand on Shang Qinghua's shoulder, too hard to be comfortable, too light to be a scolding blow, and stepped into empty air, disappearing with a blip.
That effect was still so cool, Shang Qinghua thought, and then shook his head. Really, the sooner he got work done, the sooner he could go back to the Northern Palace, where his staff of half-trained demons were probably fucking everything up in his absence.
* * *
The All-Peak meeting went smoothly enough. Shang Qinghua made a note to do something nice for his disciples, who had clearly risen to the occasion despite also having to clean up a demon attack. They’d even managed to do a good job cleaning the corrosive blood off the floors, he’d noticed.
Shen Qingqiu attended, Luo Binghe nowhere to be seen. It was a little odd that Liu Qingge stared at his shixiong about half as much as usual, but maybe he was finally adjusting to Shen Qingqiu being thoroughly married and out of his reach for good.
The only really surprising thing was that when Ku Xing's Peak Lord protested Mobei Jun's interference in An Ding Peak's affairs, and by extension demonic meddling in the human cultivation world, it was Liu Qingge who spoke up.
"He immobilized the attacking demon king at great cost to himself," Liu Qingge said. "By doing so, he allowed me to deliver the death blow more quickly than would otherwise have been possible."
He bowed in the direction of Ku Xing's Peak Lord. "Those of us who were present did our best to reduce damage. In this one's humble opinion, Mobei Jun's assistance saved many human lives. Is this not the kind of alliance between the human and demon realms that we have been working towards?"
What eloquence, Shang Qinghua thought, impressed despite himself. That was almost practiced, but Liu-shidi had had so little time to anticipate this kind of objection. Maybe he really was starting to pay attention to peak politics, after all this time!
Qi Qingqi snickered, just quiet enough to be deniable, just loud enough to be sure that the Ku Xing Peak Lord would hear her, and he flushed a dark, blotchy red.
“Not all of us are so comfortable with demons coming and going at will,” he protested.
“Indeed,” cut in Shen Qingqiu. “In that case, perhaps shidi would like to review the proposal for allowing free-passage and limited-passage tokens to approved demons, to prevent confusion such as this in the future? Surely if the wards were not so often confused, you would have been able to marshal aid for An Ding Peak in a more timely fashion.”
The ascetic lord sputtered, but he knew a losing proposition when he heard one. The meeting progressed, and Shang Qinghua even managed to block out an entire scene in the story he was currently working on, though he didn’t hide it before Shen Qingqiu came over after the meeting.
“They’re both fine,” he said, pitching his voice low. “The attacks in the borderlands were a diversion, of course, and there’s unrest at the border between the North and South now. Thank you for alerting Binghe.”
Shang Qinghua shrugged, because he couldn’t really admit it had also been a handy way to get his king out of the way. He shoved an armful of papers at his head disciple, who took them without complaint. She really was so good at her job! He’d promote her if it didn’t mean the whole generation of other Peak Lords would have to step down!
“Oh wait,” he said, when Shen Qingqiu unfurled his fan, a sure sign he was about to make a face. “I need your help!”
A single eyebrow went up.
“It’s —“ Shang Qinghua lowered his voice. “Cucumber-bro, please. I don’t remember everything, you know that.”
Shen Qingqiu snorted, and waved the fan in a gesture that might mean dismissal or might be a horrible flirt — Shang Qinghua had never really bothered to learn what the gestures actually looked like, and everyone else seemed to be used to Shen Qingqiu’s fan language amnesia after his qi deviation by now.
“You’ll owe me,” he said, but Cucumber-Bro peeked out at him from those skeptical eyes now, and Shang Qinghua breathed a sigh of relief. His curiosity was a sure thing, even all this time later, wasn’t it.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “Come find me later?”
They circulated, and Qi Qingqi actually congratulated Shang Qinghua on his king’s swift intervention, which was deeply weird. Liu Mingyan, at her side, hung on her shizun’s every word as usual.
“Was he badly injured?” Qi Qingqi asked, and he shook his head immediately. “Mingyan said his robes were a total loss after the last flame attack.”
“Oh no,” Shang Qinghua said, flailing a bit to block the visual memory while also conveying that his king wasn’t weak, but had definitely stepped in harm’s way for the sake of the Peak’s safety. He hated political conversations! Couldn’t he just hide in the background? “I mean, fire isn’t good, you know, ice demons hate fire, they’ve always had that rivalry for a reason, but he’s fine now! I’m sure he’s fine!”
Qi Qingqi smiled, as if she were somehow amused, and patted his shoulder.
“I’m sure you were a great comfort to him,” she said, and he blinked.
“Um,” he said. “I try?”
She swept off, Liu Mingyan trailing after her in mute elegance.
Finally the post-meeting-pleasantries were over. Shang Qinghua took himself to his rooms and collapsed on his chair, leaning against its sculpted back and putting his feet up on the desk with a sigh. His posture was scandalous, to be sure, but his disciples had seen worse, and no one else would dare intrude right now.
The door slammed open, and Shen Qingqiu swept in.
Well. No one would dare intrude except for him.
"You —" Shen Qingqiu exclaimed, and shut the door immediately behind himself. "Do you have no shame?"
Shang Qinghua kept his feet up on the desk and tipped his head back to look at the ceiling.
"Nope," he said. "We've established this!"
Shen Qingqiu stepped in, folded his fan away into his sleeve, and visibly transformed as he sat down, body language loosening as he rested his elbows on his knees.
"So," Cucumber-Bro said. "What's up?"
Shang Qinghua sighed. He'd been thinking about how to go about this, and he was just going to have to grovel. His king was worth it — and it wasn't as if Cucumber-Bro would deny him. He'd get made fun of, sure, but that was pretty normal.
"I need your memory," he admitted. "Because I need to make a fire-protection talisman, and I need it to either be self-powering or run on demonic qi. And I'm pretty sure I never wrote anything like that, but there's got to be a way to hack it, right?"
Cucumber-Bro sat back, visibly surprised.
"Huh," he said, and frowned for a long moment. "No, there wasn't anything quite like that. Huh."
He leaned his weight back onto his elbows. After a moment he stood up and started pacing around the room, hands laced behind his back.
"It's for Mobei Jun, right?" Cucumber-Bro said. It wasn't a question, but Shang Qinghua nodded anyway. "So it can't be elementally powered. That's gonna make it harder."
He was almost smiling, like this was a great puzzle. Shang Qinghua put his feet back on the floor, pulled out paper and a pair of brushes, and started grinding ink while he waited.
"Okay," Cucumber-Bro said, plunking himself into the chair facing the desk with exactly the same lack of decorum he'd scolded Shang Qinghua for a short time earlier. "So. You'll need — you've got paper? Good."
He grabbed for a brush and started writing out a detailed list of monster body parts. Shang Qinghua leaned over, trying to read upside down, and wondering yet again at how clear Cucumber-Bro's handwriting was.
"Did you do calligraphy lessons before?" he asked, distracted.
Cucumber-Bro blinked at him.
"Yes," he admitted. "Don't distract me, I think I have this —"
He tapped the handle of the brush against his lips, face scrunched up in thought.
"Okay," he said, making a few more notes. "Tell me what you remember about these."
They worked through the list, Cucumber-Bro chiding him for his memory more than a few times, but Shang Qinghua was starting to see how the shape of this amulet would work, if he could put it all together properly.
"The Four-Tailed-Frost-Fox's blood might be a challenge," Cucumber-Bro mused. "They're pretty close to extinct, aren't they, and migratory."
Shang Qinghua frowned.
"I think one of my king's cousins' children has one as a pet?" he offered. "Their abilities aren't that dangerous for ice demons, and they're very loyal."
It would be hard to figure out how to explain why he needed the blood, but easier than finding one of the reclusive creatures in the wild.
He could tell his king what he was doing, but the walls in the Northern Palace had ears, and he didn't want to risk Linguang Jun finding out anything about this amulet. His king's uncle might not have tried to kill Mobei Jun again since he'd assumed the powers inherent in his deceased father's body, but Shang Qinghua wanted to be able to fireball that bastard again if he needed to.
Eventually they had a list, and a set of steps for putting together an amulet that shouldn't be too large or obvious.
"Thanks," Shang Qinghua said, staring down at the sheets of paper. "Seriously, bro, I mean it."
"Yeah, well," Cucumber-Bro said, seemingly disarmed by the appreciation. "I'm not an encyclopedia, you know?"
Shang Qinghua shrugged.
"Your memory's fresher than mine," he said. "I got here a lot earlier than you, you know?" It had been several decades for him, and he'd started as an infant, after all. It had been so much less than that for Cucumber-Bro. Maybe he should write an encyclopedia, though.
Cucumber-Bro blinked at him.
"Oh," he said. He seemed to be reassessing something. "Not like you remembered this shit before you got here. What with the duplication of events and flowers in chapters 427 and 632."
Shang Qinghua smiled, just a little bit.
"You're so sure I didn't do that on purpose!" he protested. (He hadn't, but that wasn't the point.)
They bickered amiably for a little longer, and then Cucumber-Bro shook his head, and stood up, pulling out his fan and slipping back into character.
"I should get back. Hey," Shen Qingqiu continued, looking down at Shang Qinghua with an unreadable expression, "good luck."
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but he just shook his head, and walked out of the room.
Shang Qinghua carefully transcribed the whole list into pinyin, putting some of the instructions into English, just to be sure no one else could read it, and finally burned the original notes.
Sure, it was paranoid. But he really didn't want his king to be lit on fire again. Those burns had still been bright and shiny the day after, which was terribly slow healing for a demon's constitution.
* * *
Back at the Northern Palace, Shang Qinghua headed straight to his commandeered office, where his staff had apparently been competing to see who could make the most mess of the place. He was deep in re-filing hell, with teetering stacks of documents on every available surface including the floor, muttering to himself, and deep in thought.
"Shang Qinghua," his king said. He had appeared in the doorway without any warning at all.
Shang Qinghua eeped, lost his balance, and windmilled his arms to regain his footing so that he didn't crash into any of his piles.
"I'm going to put a bell on him," he hissed at himself. "Why did I think silent entrances were impressive, what the hell was I thinking!"
"Shang Qinghua?" his king asked, looking around the room with a puzzled expression. "You did not notify me of your return."
Shang Qinghua looked around the room, which admittedly looked like a disaster, but it had to get worse before it would get better, all right? It wasn't his fault he had to do this whenever he got back.
"I —" Shang Qinghua looked up. "No? I thought I should get to work?"
His king frowned. He — was he wearing one of the robes Shang Qinghua had given him, as an inner robe? That was — it didn't clash, exactly, but it was definitely not his usual silver and blue.
"Hm," his king said, looking at the mess of the room and not taking a single step over the threshold. "You have assistants for a reason."
"Yes, well," Shang Qinghua bit out, trying to figure out if he could get to the doorway without stepping on any records. The answer, he thought, was no. "If they could keep anything in order, I wouldn't have to do this every time I get home."
His king blinked, and Shang Qinghua played back what he'd said.
"Back!" he yelped. "When I get back. It's your home, of course, I just — stay here!"
His king's expression flattened out again, and Shang Qinghua tried not to flinch.
"I have to finish this, my king," he said. "I can attend you when I finish? If there's something you need?"
His king nodded, and walked away, footsteps alarmingly silent on the ice-cold floors. The edge of a pale green robe peeked out from below his dark blue cloak and outer robes, a little flutter of unaccustomed color in this white and blue place. Shang Qinghua shook himself and got back to work. He'd already gotten everything sorted, and if he got everything re-filed before he forgot which pile was which, he'd be able to get started on the real work tomorrow.
Time went kind of funny around the edges as he focused. When he woke up in the middle of the night slumped over his mostly-clear desk, Shang Qinghua decided discretion was the better part of valor, and went to his rooms. If he fell asleep fully-dressed that was between him and the fluffy pillows, wasn't it.
When he crawled out of bed at dawn and checked the wardrobe the next morning, he was reminded that everything he had left to wear here at the Northern Palace were the new robes, which were all different shades of blue and silver. He looked at the crumpled grey and green An Ding Peak robes he'd all but passed out in, thought quickly, and hung them up at one end so they wouldn't disappear in the wash like everything else. The wrinkles would work their way out eventually, wouldn't they?
It always felt colder in the Northern Palace when he had first returned. Shang Qinghua shivered after changing into the soft, heavy blue outer robes and looked for the cloak his king had lent him, but it was nowhere to be seen. He shrugged, and resigned himself to shivering. He'd probably left it on An Ding Peak, which was exactly why his king shouldn't have given him such a nice thing: he'd just misplace it, or mess it up, just like the fancy ergonomic keyboard he'd spilled boba on a week after buying it in his last life.
Now that he thought about it, his king was surely busy, so Shang Qinghua ducked to the kitchens, wheedled a bowl of less-weird food from the cooks, and took it to his office to start actually doing the paperwork he had sorted yesterday. That way he'd have something to show for himself when he saw Mobei Jun.
When his assistants filed in some time later, two were missing, and all of them moved like they'd just come in from sparring in the courtyards again over who would have to grind the ink. Shang Qinghua paid it no mind: they were always fighting over things, and he'd long since given up trying to get them to stop, so long as their altercations didn't disrupt his work.
"The king requests your presence," the smallest one, a distantly related ice demon cousin, said. Her ice-demon blood was diluted, apparently, and a grandparent's furry ears peeked out of her white hair. Her voice was quieter than usual this morning.
"Okay," Shang Qinghua said. "I'm kind of in the middle of this, and I've got a lot to catch up on, so I'll just —"
She visibly blanched, which was impressive on her already ice-pale skin.
"No, my lord," she said, sounding almost desperate. The tone and the unaccustomed title made Shang Qinghua look up. "He requests your presence now.”
She gave him a weirdly deep bow.
"This one will continue work," she said, and glared at her two companions out of the corner of her eye, ears flicking back in suppressed anger. "These ones will too. We apologize to our lord for the quality of our work previously. We will be more diligent."
Shang Qinghua thought if she had a visible tail it would either be curled under her like a cowed dog's, or lashing in anxiety like a cat's.
"All right," he said, because when things got weird he went with the flow. "I'm going, I'm going. Don't touch my desk."
Mobei Jun was apparently still in his private rooms, which was weird, but, well. Shang Qinghua had seen weirder things than his king's private rooms, and he'd figure out what was going on eventually. Some of the servants smiled at him on his way there, and some scowled, and Shang Qinghua paused at the door to be sure there wasn't anything on his face, that his hair wasn't sticking up funny or something. It seemed fine.
His king was sitting at the low table in the second-innermost of his rooms, food spread out in front of him. Shang Qinghua paused in shock. There was congee with chicken eggs, and what sure looked like actual Western-style pig-derived bacon. He'd definitely written that into this world because he loved it, historical accuracy be damned. Cucumber-Bro had had a fit about it at the time, he was pretty sure.
"Shang Qinghua," Mobei Jun said, frowning. "Come here."
Shang Qinghua hurried into the room and bowed, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong other than, well, disobeying a direct order last night by passing out on his desk and going straight to bed.
"Sit down," his king snapped.
Shang Qinghua folded onto his knees, and watched as his king pushed a bowl of congee over at him, and a plate with bacon and several other actually-identifiable, human-realm foods.
"My king?" he asked.
"Eat," his king said.
Shang Qinghua was only human, all right? He grabbed for the bacon with his fingers, completely forgetting his manners. If he made a little noise at the crispy deliciousness of it, well, that was between him and his tastebuds.
When he looked up, Mobei Jun looked almost like he was embarrassed. Shang Qinghua looked at his greasy fingers, and the lack of napkins, and his nice, new robes, and licked the bacon grease off his fingers.
"Thank you, my king!" he chirped.
"You like it?" Mobei Jun asked. It seemed important.
"Very much!" Shang Qinghua agreed. "It's so good. I don't know where you found bacon! It's my favorite." He paused. "Have you tried it? You should try it."
He considered trying to pick up a piece of bacon with chopsticks, but he'd probably drop it, so he just grabbed a strip in his fingers and held it up to Mobei Jun.
"Here, my king," he said. "It's so good!"
It occurred to him as Mobei Jun leaned in that he was probably being entirely inappropriate, but he had committed, so he just waved it a little bit until his king leaned in and took a delicate bite.
If Shang Qinghua shivered at the sight — well. It was very cold in the Northern Palace, all right?
Mobei Jun chewed carefully, swallowed, and nodded.
"It is good," he agreed, and shook his head when Shang Qinghua pushed it forward again. "It's for you," he said.
They ate in the companionable near-silence Shang Qinghua was starting to take for granted with his king.
"I hope they're not messing up my filing," Shang Qinghua fretted, thinking about his assistants. "And I don't know why two of them were late."
"They won't," Mobei Jun said. "And those two weren't late. They're being replaced."
The temperature in the room dipped and Shang Qinghua couldn't help a shiver. His king's expression went still.
"You're cold," he said. He sounded surprised.
"I'm usually cold," Shang Qinghua agreed. "It's chilly this far north, my king, and I'm only human."
Mobei Jun pushed another cup of hot tea toward him, frowning. Shang Qinghua took it — it was even human tea, a totally boring variety. He thought it probably tasted an awful lot like the cheap convenience store tea he'd relied on for mild caffeine boosts when he was out of coffee or energy drinks.
Finally there was a knock on the outer doors, and a servant called almost timidly for Mobei Jun.
"Oh my god," Shang Qinghua squeaked, looking at the way the light was falling through the single skylight. "My king, it's so late! You have meetings! I have work!"
He hopped to his feet, grateful for his cultivation — if he'd knelt for so long in his original body he'd have been all aches and pains — bowed, and hurried back to his office. His three remaining assistants were actually at their desks, and were all apparently working. Miracle of miracles, none of them appeared to have touched his desk, either.
He settled down, pushed through enough paperwork for plausible deniability, and pulled his notes out of his sleeve to ponder how to get the ingredients for the amulet. Some of the non-perishable components looked familiar, and a few hours later, he'd found all but two items listed on the inventories he'd made of his king's storehouses. The most useful list was also written in pinyin, just in case: no one needed to know exactly what treasures his king held onto, did they?
Cross-checking the lists, there were only two items outstanding: the blood of the Four-Tailed Frost-Fox, which his king could probably get for him, and dew collected from a particular cave, which he'd probably have to sweet-talk Shen Qingqiu into getting Luo Binghe to collect, since it had to be manipulated only by demonic qi.
Shang Qinghua was in a much better mood over the next few days, as he gradually squirreled items away into a qiankun pouch in his sleeve, filling out all the requisition forms perfectly and signing off on them himself.
If some of the servants and even some of the minor retainers seemed to still have feelings about the colors of his new robes, well, Shang Qinghua wasn't above flipping his embroidered sleeves at them just a little bit when they passed him in the halls, just to see them flush red or green or see their hackles quite literally go up.
When rumblings of discontent on the border with the late Nanshan Jun's territory started to be a little more persistent than was entirely comfortable, Luo Binghe came for an unscheduled visit, dragging Shen Qingqiu with him and dropping him off in Shang Qinghua's office with a glare.
"It's gonna be that bad, then?" Shang Qinghua asked.
Shen Qingqiu raised his hands in a 'don't ask me' gesture.
One of Shang Qinghua's assistants — the distant cousin — looked at him, visibly aghast.
"Lord Luo overheard several retainers muttering about the fickle nature of human alliances, and the unsuitability of human consorts," she said. She sounded utterly appalled. "He and our king are holding court to root out discontent."
"Well," Shang Qinghua said, seeing how the other two glanced longingly at the door, and jumping at the chance to get them out of the room so he could talk privately with Cucumber-Bro. "I'm sure you don't want to miss that, do you? The paperwork will be here later, and I'm sure Shen-shidi will keep me company."
They had all been odd about him going places alone, ever since his king had come back from An Ding Peak scorched so badly.
I'm not the one who got him burned, he wanted to yell at them sometimes, but bringing up his king's injury didn't seem wise at all, so he mostly just ignored it.
The three assistants all but zoomed out of the room, which meant there was probably going to be some pretty epic bloodshed in court today.
"Well," Shen Qingqiu said, watching them go. "There goes my hope that Binghe will be going easy on anyone."
He sat down across from Shang Qinghua. "I'll keep you company?"
Shang Qinghua spread his hands, adopting his best 'you got me' expression.
"They're weird about me going places alone since the Peak attack," he said. "I don't know, it's not like I'm the one who got hurt."
Cucumber-Bro stared at him, expression somewhere between disbelief and outright pity.
"The attack on An Ding Peak where Nanshan Jun was looking specifically for you?" he demanded. "That attack?"
Shang Qinghua blinked at him.
"He was looking for you," he said. "I don't know why he thought you'd be there if he lured Binghe away, but --" he shrugged. "I didn't write them especially smart, so, you know, it makes sense he'd get it wrong."
"So Mobei Jun came to An Ding Peak to fight someone for my honor?" Cucumber-Bro looked at him like that was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. "Because he cares so much about me, and when I wasn't there he stayed out of the goodness of his heart and his love for humans in general?"
Put that way it sounded kind of stupid.
"He went for you, you dimwit," Cucumber-Bro said. "He went because you were in danger, and that talisman tells him when you're freaking out, because he's almost as much of an OP creepy stalker as Binghe is, which is saying something, and thanks for that, by the way. I feel like I'm wearing a fucking ankle bracelet sometimes with the way he can track me with his blood."
Shen Qinghua blinked.
"But he doesn't track me like tha--" he started, and then remembered that his king had known where he'd been. "Huh. I guess he really doesn't trust me, and — he still thinks I'm going to leave?"
Cucumber-Bro groaned and buried his face in his hands.
"You cannot seriously be this stupid," he said into his palms, and gave a little muffled scream before sitting up. "Okay. He was acting weird earlier, right? He was, what, being nice, giving you his clothes, and feeding you. And stalking you, like they do. And since then, he's kept doing all that?"
Shang Qinghua nodded.
"And he's given you more robes, in his colors," Cucumber-Bro said, ticking points off on his fingers. "And he goes out of his way to protect you, at risk to himself. Yeah. Definitely sounds like doesn't trust you at all."
He glared at Shang Qinghua, who threw his hands in the air.
"What else am I supposed to think?" he demanded. "It's not like — He probably thinks I'm going to get poisoned or something.”
Cucumber-Bro looked at him and visibly gave up, shoulders slumping.
"Okay," he said. "So he's trying to keep you from being poisoned. Sure. How's the amulet going?"
Shang Qinghua lept at the change in topic, and was even kind of subtle about convincing Cucumber-Bro to get Binghe to collect the dew for him.
"You owe me," Cucumber-Bro said, but there was no real heat in it. The cave was in an area with a huge number of horrifying monsters, and he was probably over the moon over the chance to go observe them. Or, well, observe Luo Binghe killing them. Same difference, right?
"Yeah, I know," Shang Qinghua agreed. "Do you think court is safe yet? I haven't heard any screaming for a while."
Court was...mostly safe, in that there were bodies, but no active killing by the time they got there. Several retainers were hurriedly dragging corpses out of the middle of the floor, and Mobei Jun and Luo Binghe sat at the dais, completely untouched by the obvious carnage.
That...probably shouldn't be hot.
Probably Shang Qinghua should be doing what Cucumber-Bro was doing, and retching a little bit behind a fan, or glaring at the podium to convey distress at unnecessary deaths, but, well. They'd all been assholes, from what he could see, and on his "means my king ill" shitlist to some degree or another. And sometimes demons just needed to kill each other. Cucumber-Bro would understand that better if he and Luo Binghe spent any time in the demon realms.
Shang Qinghua shook off the moment of introspection and took his usual seat off to one side, more for form's sake than because he expected there to be anything he needed to take notes on after a display as big as the one that was being cleaned up now.
Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu departed almost as soon as things had concluded, stepping onto their swords without a second glance.
Remember your promise, bro! Shang Qinghua thought at his back, and went back to his office, where his assistants were giving each other a gory play-by-play of the events he'd missed.
* * *
A few weeks later, Shang Qinghua used his talisman to teleport to Wan Jian Peak, where he'd booked time at a forge.
He'd left a note for his king, explaining his absence on urgent peak business. He'd given strict instructions to his assistants about how to organize things while he was gone. A fourth one had been added, and this one seemed to actually have a head for numbers, and a fondness for finding discrepancies in the ledgers that Shang Qinghua appreciated. He thought they might even follow the instructions this time, which was good, because he planned to be gone for three days and three nights.
In the end, it took three days, three nights, and then two days of being thoroughly passed out in Mu-shidi's sickroom before he got back to the Northern Palace. But the talisman felt just like they thought it should, so who cared about a few days of unconsciousness, even with the weird dreams.
Remembering his apology from last time, Shang Qinghua even brought back some of the weird cantaloupe-kiwi fruit, and osmanthus cakes from the peak's kitchens.
He did not expect to be intercepted by Sha Hualing on his way into the palace, and frog-marched to his king's rooms.
"Send a note next time, idiot," she hissed, as they walked. "You can't just disappear. It makes our king look weak, and he can't afford that when he's finally made his mind up about his consort and nearly half the court hates the idea."
"Oh," Shang Qinghua thought. He followed a little more limply after that, scouring his mind for potential consorts. He hadn't seen his king courting anyone. Surely there would have been more dead monsters being deposited at the feet of some demon saintess or other? He couldn't have missed that, could he?
"Get in there," Sha Hualing said, shoving him out a door into a — garden? It was kind of a garden, if a garden had rocks and things that could kill you in place of, you know, flowers, and if the sky looked weirdly like a fuzzy nebula in outer space seen through a clear ice ceiling instead of blue and sunny.
Mobei Jun was staring at a red plant, and turned when Shang Qinghua stumbled on the pebbled path.
"Shang Qinghua," his king said. He sounded surprised. "You came back."
"Of course I came back!" Shang Qinghua protested. "I just got — delayed."
He didn't need to mention passing out, surely. That was just a minor detail, and his king would think he was even weaker if he admitted to it. He hadn't passed out that badly —
"You passed out," his king said.
"I said that out loud," Shang Qinghua moaned. "It was just a little bit of passing out, my king! Just a couple of days! Mu-shidi looked after me! I wasn't in that much danger, I just — kind of — miscalculated?"
His king looked even more blank now, in a way that meant he was definitely trying to keep his feelings off his features, and that was never a good sign. Shang Qinghua had planned on leading up to this a little bit more, but, well, he hadn't expected to be back so late, or to pass out making the amulet, or for his king to look this displeased about his absence.
"I made this for you!" he said, and shoved the amulet — a dark blue-black steel set with clear white gems of crystallized starless and moonless dew — at his king without any kind of ceremony at all. "It's — it's protective against fire. Because--because I didn't like seeing Nanshan Jun hurt you, my king."
His king stared at him, hand half-extended to take it, paused in mid-air.
"It only runs on demonic qi," Shang Qinghua said, running his mouth to fill the uncertain quiet. "And I think it'll only work for the first person — well, first demon — who touches it? It's supposed to work that way? So it can't be used by anyone else if they get any ideas."
His king looked at him, eyes wide, expression totally opaque.
"You made me a protective talisman," he said.
"Uh," Shang Qinghua said. "Yes? It's not that I think you need it, or like, need protecting — or — shit. It's just — fire is bad? It really did take an awful lot of work, my king, so. Will you take it?"
Mobei Jun reached out for it then, hand moving with truly inhuman speed, and when Shang Qinghua blinked, it was hung around his neck, clearly visible in the vee of his half-open robes, drawing the eye directly to the absurdly sculpted muscles of his chest.
"Good," Shang Qinghua managed, mouth suddenly dry. "Good, I'm glad. I don't pass out making talismans for just anyone."
Mobei Jun moved swiftly toward him, and Shang Qinghua flinched back, expecting to be boxed on the ears for his stupidity. No blow landed, and when he opened his eyes, his king was leaning over him, looking down at him from very close by.
"Okay," Shang Qinghua said, because he didn't know what else to say. "I'm just going to — check on work? I'm going to check on work. I — uh — I brought these for you too? I'm sorry I was late, I didn't mean to be, bye!"
He shoved the bundle of snacks at his king's chest. It was not a dignified escape, made less so by his slipping on the tiny pebbles of the walk and nearly face-planting into the garden's door, which Sha Hualing had apparently closed behind her. He had expected it to be open, but Shang Qinghua had long since given up on dignity, so he flailed and scrambled and got out of the way before his king could realize that Shang Qinghua had just basically admitted that he didn't think his king could hold his own against the next Southern demon lord, should there be another direct confrontation.
His staff seemed to be relieved to see him, and things weren't as much of a nightmare as usual. Shang Qinghua settled into paperwork with a kind of relief. At least paperwork wouldn't stare at him from up close with perfect, chiseled features and blue eyes, and paperwork wouldn't make him lose sleep, and paperwork wouldn't tease him with hints of things that might, if he looked at it sideways, be a kind of affection.
No, paperwork was great. Except when Mobei Jun's subordinates tried to rip their king off by submitting cooked accounts, or start little border scuffles in the hopes that nobody would notice their casualty reports not lining up. Then it was just a great way to vent his frustration by making their lives complete and utter hell.
Two days later, Sha Hualing ducked in, glared at him, and dropped a thin red volume on his desk.
"Don't ask me questions about these," she said. "Ask our king."
Well, he thought, as she stalked out, veils swaying in her wake. That was weird.
Was he supposed to read this and report back? It looked too small to be a ledger.
He opened it up and found the kind of poetry he'd always hated as a student: clearly archaic, really dense with literary allusions--and not even allusions to the world he'd grown up in, or the literature he'd been forced to read in school, either here, or before he'd transmigrated. The Demon Realm did have its scholars, after all, even if most of them had also been warlords or succubus queens, powerful enough creatures to keep their thrones while engaging in lighter pursuits on the sides.
It was really amazing, sometimes, Shang Qinghua thought, paging through the book, the ways in which the Demon Realm, which he'd barely fleshed out in his novel and only poked at a little bit in backstory and unpublished writing and planning, seemed to have grown its own whole history and set of traditions, entirely without any prompting from him! Just too impressive!
He took the book back to his rooms with him that night, and curled up at his table in a nest of pillows and blankets to keep reading, puzzling over elements that seemed familiar, and elements that seemed totally foreign.
His king stepped through a portal some time later with a tray of food, as he'd done the previous night as well. Maybe passing out for a couple of days making a talisman was worth it after all!
"My king," Shang Qinghua asked. "What does it mean here, 'the bloom is not a bloom'? And why do they keep talking about imprisoned women?"
He angled the book so his king could see the carefully-inked pages.
"You are doing this on purpose," he heard his king hiss, as he set the tray down carefully with barely a click.
Mobei Jun stepped around the table, and then — Shang Qinghua dropped the book, as Mobei Jun kissed him savagely, lips cool and smooth against his own. His king leaned down, knelt beside him, and his hands cupped Shang Qinghua's face, huge and slightly chilly, and — Shang Qinghua made a muffled noise into the kiss and Mobei Jun pulled back, expression stormy.
"No," he said. "You haven't rejected me before."
He leaned in again, and kissed Shang Qinghua as if he meant it, hungry, pushy kisses with just a little bit too much biting from teeth that were just a little bit too sharp. But — it was his king, Mobei Jun, kissing him like he meant it.
Shang Qinghua pulled himself together and put his hands on his king's shoulders, pushing away for long enough to gasp.
"Wait," he said. "You're not — you're not possessed, right? Or poisoned?"
Mobei Jun blinked at him, disbelief clear on his face. His lips were faintly pink where Shang Qinghua had bitten him back.
"Okay," Shang Qinghua said, and — fuck it — pulled him in for another kiss. This was a terrible idea, but it was such a good terrible idea. When it all went to hell he could always run away for a few months or years to An Ding Peak or even become a wandering minstrel or something.
They kissed for long minutes, and then Shang Qinghua yelped and grabbed at his king's shoulders as Mobei Jun picked him up, blankets and all, and carried him over to his bed as if he weighed nothing at all, dropping him onto it and looming over him to kiss him senseless.
It got very heated from there, very fast, and very naked, which was a little overwhelming. It was nice at first, and then it was a little uncomfortable. And then it hurt. And, sure, Shang Qinghua probably shouldn't have used a qi-powered self-defense blow to try to break his king's nose, but that was what he could reach, okay.
"I'm sorry," he yelped, holding a handkerchief under his king's nose, directing him to tip his head forwards. His blood had run down the bottom half of his face, onto his neck. A single droplet was making its way down his bare chest. "I'm sorry, my king — I --"
He couldn't say he didn't mean it — he had very much meant it when he'd yelled at him to stop. That was the problem. But he didn't mean stop forever, he didn't think.
"Come here," his king said, and instead of storming out, or pushing Shang Qinghua away, Mobei Jun gathered him up in his free arm, leaned against the head of the bed, tipped his chin forwards again, and petted Shang Qinghua's messy hair.
They were both silent for a time, during which Shang Qinghua tried to ignore three things: he was cuddling his ideal man, both of them were naked, and he'd just broken the man in question's nose for trying to stick it in him too fast.
If he thought about it too much, he'd freak out, and he was very good at controlling how badly he freaked out over small things like murder and intrigue and whether or not the kitchens had the right kinds of rice cakes, and very, very bad at managing how he freaked out about things he actually cared about. Like his king. Like maybe getting to have sex with his king. Like maybe getting to have feelings about his king.
"I do not want to hurt you," his king said.
His hand was heavy on Shang Qinghua's head, and he liked it there, liked being curled up on his king's lap. He didn't like holding a bloody handkerchief to his king's hastily-set broken nose, but maybe they could skip that next time.
"Me either," he admitted. "I'm sorry. I was surprised, and it hurt, and I haven't — I don't know what I'm doing?"
How pathetic was that, for someone who had lived two lifetimes. Sure, he'd been a shut-in geek in his first life, and busy being a demonic spy when he wasn't working to be the best administrative peak disciple, but surely it was too pathetic to admit to having no experience at all.
His king made a low rumbling sound in his chest, one Shang Qinghua felt against his skin, more than heard.
"I should not have been so impatient," his king allowed, which was honestly a lot more of an apology than Shang Qinghua had expected.
Silence fell again, and finally Mobei Jun tipped his head backwards.
"It's healed," he said, and when Shang Qinghua took the blood-stained handkerchief away, he could see that it was, his king's nose perfectly straight again with no sign of having been almost flattened by a puny human cultivator with a lot of panic and the element of surprise.
"Good," Shang Qinghua said, which was inane, but he meant it. He dabbed at the drying blood on his king's lips and chin, mostly just managing to smear it around. "Let me get something?"
To his surprise, his king let him get up without protest. It was cold to be wandering around his rooms naked, but his robes were--well, he wasn't quite sure where they were in the tangle of blue and silver on the floor, between the blankets, his king's robes, and his own. He sucked it up, hurried over to the enchanted ewer of warm water on the washstand, and grabbed a couple of damp towels. Then he grabbed a container of salve that, in retrospect, they definitely should have used before.
Mobei Jun pulled him down to straddle his lap, and Shang Qinghua did not think about the proximity of their dicks as he hovered, wiping his king's face clean. Okay. Only a little bit. With, like, 85% of his brain. He placed a gentle kiss on his king's nose, then on the corner of his mouth, lips following the cloth as he wiped the blood away.
When he knelt back to wash down Mobei Jun's chest, he looked down, and instinctively licked his lips. His king was just — so big. He dragged his eyes back up, cleaned up the droplet that had worked its way down his chest, and impulsively leaned in to kiss his way back up to his king's collarbones, up his neck, to his jawline.
Mobei Jun let himself be moved, breath hitching in his throat as Shang Qinghua manhandled him just a little bit, but finally, as Shang Qinghua placed a second teasing kiss at the corner of his mouth, his patience broke.
He rolled them over and boxed Shang Qinghua in with his body, and — well — this time Shang Qinghua was pretty sure he was allowed to look, wasn't he? This wasn't like when his king was in tiny borrowed robes, or stripped out of his destroyed clothing.
Then they were kissing again, and everything else went out of his mind for some time.
His king was more patient this time, and the salve helped. And Shang Qinghua only kicked his king in the ribs twice, which he thought was probably perfectly fine.
Afterwards, Mobei Jun used the same damp cloths to clean them up, and pulled Shang Qinghua half onto his chest in a possessive embrace, where he started to doze off despite his king's low body temperature.
"How was that, husband?" his king asked.
Shang Qinghua froze. He blinked. He played that back in his mind. He — hadn't misheard?
"What?" he asked, sitting up. "I — you — what did you call me?"
Mobei Jun stared up at him, expression fractured, hiding vulnerability in a way Shang Qinghua hadn't seen since his king had had a dart in his kidneys all those years ago.
"I don't — I don't understand," he tried. He kept his breathing slow. He — he'd misunderstood something. He was having a stroke. He couldn't possibly have heard correctly. "It's not — unwelcome? I just don't understand. When did we get married?"
Mobei Jun blinked at him, slow, like a big cat deciding if a prey animal was worth the risk.
He sat up as well, long fine hair draping like a veil across his shoulders.
"You saved my life from Nanshan Jun. You gave me gifts of clothing and personally-prepared food. And then you gave me a protective talisman made by your own hand. In exchange, I saved your life, and," he paused, "you accepted my tokens as well."
He shrugged, looking uncomfortable at having to put so many words together in a row. "It's a very ancient custom of my clan. Most people kill monsters to show esteem, these days, but this is more binding, and more traditional."
Shang Qinghua goggled at him.
"I --" he said. "I was apologizing? With the fruit?"
Mobei Jun's expression shuttered.
"I thought it was a very clever move to gain acceptance with the more traditional demons in my court," he said. "Sha Hualing said you were just an idiot, and I should talk to you.
“I owe her a new dagger, now," he mused.
He sounded unhappy about that, and Shang Qinghua reined his mind in, trying to keep his focus where it belonged.
"You wanted me to — ?My king." He took a deep breath. "Yes. I mean — I didn't know, but I would have, if I'd known? I mean, I probably wouldn't have, because I'm a huge coward, but I'd have wanted to?"
Mobei Jun looked over at him. The talisman was still on its chain around his neck, glinting in the dim light of the single candle that hadn't burned down yet.
"I would have wanted to," Shang Qinghua said, and forced himself to keep talking, because this was serious, this was important, this was really fucking scary. No wonder his king didn't talk much, if it always felt like this. "I mean — I mean — you have no idea how long I've wanted you, my king. It's — it's always been you."
Something almost like a smile crossed Mobei Jun's features, then, and he nodded, just once.
"Do we have to do it all again?" Shang Qinghua asked, suddenly worried. "I mean, if I didn't know what I was doing? I just — I don't want you to nearly die again, and I don't want to have to make another talisman and pass out for two days again. Mu-shidi was really very mean to me when I woke up, you know."
Mobei Jun smiled at that, a real smile, not the cruel half-smile he wore sometimes in battle, and Shang Qinghua felt his heart flip over in his chest.
"I think not," Mobei Jun said. "You meant it, after all, and the steps were observed."
He made a beckoning gesture, and Shang Qinghua came closer, let himself be pulled down to lie against his king's broad chest.
"Husband," he said, trying out the sound of it. Mobei Jun made that rumbling, contented sound again, and pulled him closer.
He fell asleep like that, and woke in the middle of the night to his king pulling blankets over them both.
* * *
The next time Mobei Jun formally held court, Shang Qinghua walked in before his king and sat at the low table to the right hand side of the throne. It was, he noticed, the same place he'd been placed after the assassination attempt. This time his blue and silver robes fit properly, and he wore the teleportation talisman openly at his waist, a sign of his husband's favor.
Down the hall, Sha Hualing glared at a distant cousin who looked like he might have opinions about a human being so visibly elevated. When Mobei Jun entered and took a seat on his throne, the talisman at his neck glinted in the light.
If Shang Qinghua showed off just a little bit more niche knowledge in this meeting than he usually would — this time about the Southern snake demons and how they distributed power generationally — all backstory he'd written about Zhuzhi-lang's father--well, it was worth it to see his king's small smile, Sha Hualing's small, evil grin, and even more so the exceptionally sour expressions on the face of Linguang Jun's human-hating supporters.
THE END .