All things considered, it really was sort of obvious.
Hey! Anyone can be a genius in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20! It’s a lot harder to notice this sort of thing when you’re living in the moment!
Besides, who can blame him! He'd never written about this facet of Mobei Jun's life before. Not in his drafts, not in his extras, not even in his own mind. Sure, he'd always thought that it would be a fun and spicy easter egg for Mobei Jun to have some kind of cool beast king shapeshifting powers, but it had felt way too self-indulgent. Plus, fitting it in on top of all of Mobei Jun's other OP abilities had felt like trying to force the zipper shut on an ample bosom already bursting its bindings! So that idea, as delicious as it was, had never been more than a passing fantasy in the depths of his own mind.
He definitely didn't expect it to manifest like this! This isn't even a Chinese myth? And Mobei Jun seems better suited for something more thematically appropriate, like a white tiger, or a silver dragon, or a black wolf...not that he's saying Mobei Jun isn't devastatingly attractive in any form he chooses, haha don't get him wrong here! He's still A-okay with how this all played out. Artistic intention is only a loose template, after all. After a certain point, the will of the story takes on a life of its own!
Still...considering all the times he'd gotten his hands on Mobei Jun's sealskin, he's sort of shocked that it took him so long to figure it out.
With Mobei Jun soaking in the tub to recover faster, Shang Qinghua sheds big, persecuted tears as he turns his attention to the young king's dirtied robes. What is this, huh? Being forced to wait hand and foot upon this spoiled and arrogant demon prince in exchange for his pathetic life had seemed like a much better deal when he wasn't elbow deep in bloody laundry. What a scam!
He scrubs the robes resentfully, rubbing soap into the bloodstains and letting them soak for a bit as he makes yet another trip up and down the stairs with two more buckets of water for Mobei Jun's bath before returning to his duty as persecuted launderer.
As he's separating the sodden mass of fabric into outer and inner robes, a soaked animal skin drifts free of the confines of one set of inner robes and floats to the surface of the cloudy water. Shang Qinghua frowns at it, turning it over in his hands before realizing that it's not soaked - it's waterproof. Little beads of water stream easily off the surface of the mottled pelt, plinking back into the basin. The fur is relatively clean compared to the rest of Mobei Jun's robes, so Shang Qinghua rubs some soap into the few dirty spots and gives it a quick rinse before draping it to air dry on the rack next to him, turning his attention back to the heavily bloodstained outer robes.
He’s gotten all the laundry cleaned, patched, and drying when his stomach gives a sad gurgle that's loud enough to echo around the room. Shang Qinghua peeks quickly behind him to see Mobei Jun soaking away in dignified silence. Furtively, he digs out a soggy ration bar from his inner pockets and resigns himself to a hastily gobbled snack for lunch. He’s munching on the bar and thinking wistfully of flavored melon seeds when he hears a great noise of sloshing water from behind him. He turns just in time to watch Mobei Jun heave himself violently out of the tub and stomp towards him.
Shang Qinghua curls protectively around his food, chewing faster just in case Mobei Jun decides to claim his meager meal too, but all the spoiled young demon lord does is glare at him poisonously, dripping a huge mess onto the floor that Shang Qinghua knows he'll have to clean later. His mind clicks back on and he realizes that 1) Mobei Jun is naked, 2) Mobei Jun is naked, and 3) He obviously wants something from Shang Qinghua.
Hastily swallowing his last bite and averting his eyes respectfully, he salutes Mobei Jun, hoping his momentary lapse in attention won’t earn him a beating!
"My king? Is there something this humble servant can assist you with?”
Mobei Jun continues to glare at him in silence. His cold blue eyes rake over the damp robes around Shang Qinghua. Oh, he wants to get dressed?
"Ah, my king, many apologies, but everything is still wet -” Mobei Jun snorts contemptuously and stalks toward him, one arm darting out to smack him! Shang Qinghua immediately lets out a pathetic scream, curling into a defensive ball with his hands over his head. It's not this one's fault the robes aren't dry yet!!
Surprisingly, all Mobei Jun does is snatch the drying animal skin off the rack, stomping back to the tub with much dripping of icy water. How anticlimactic!
Shang Qinghua eyes the extremely firm and shapely way the demon lord's butt moves as he slips back into the bathtub, the waterproof pelt draped over his shoulders. Weird? If he wasn’t going to get dressed, why take it back to the bath with him at all?
Mobei Jun catches his wandering eyes with a glare holding the force of a punch behind it. Shang Qinghua flinches on instinct and gives him a weak, ingratiating smile.
"More water,“ Mobei Jun says imperiously. “And clean the outer robe more thoroughly.” He eyes Shang Qinghua coldly. "If you miss even one spot, see what this Mobei Jun will do.”
Shang Qinghua gnashes his teeth violently even as he puts on an accommodating smile, bowing to Mobei Jun before scurrying back downstairs for more water as commanded.
Spoiled! This tyrannical young demon lord is really too spoiled!!
When Shang Qinghua trudges back to his leisure house at the end of the day, all he’s looking forward to is getting some sleep. Being head disciple is no joke! Sure it’s mostly busywork and a mix bag of dreary, tiresome tasks that demand human attention despite their banal nature, but it’s still a lot! It’s like the xianxia equivalent of every horrible retail job he's ever worked in his life, but with more math involved, and he’s been run ragged ever since his shifu discovered that Shang Qinghua is capable of balancing the books without supervision. The old man has been sending him to the other peaks like a particularly harried rent-a-CPA for any accounting issue that pops up, no matter how small. Shang Qinghua has had to make nice with the archival staff of every peak in order to chase down musty old records and reconcile their awful accounts!
Tedious! Stupid! Waste of time! And it’s obvious that shifu is just throwing the responsibility onto Shang Qinghua’s shoulders so that he doesn’t have to go himself. You know what they say, the nail that sticks out really does get the hammer! He should’ve just kept his head down and stayed unassuming and bland. He would’ve, if he didn’t have a big death flag hanging over him at the mere thought of disobeying the System’s plot-related demands!
Curse you, System! A thousand curses upon you for forcing this old man into a position of actual responsibility!
He kicks the door shut behind him, makes a beeline to his slightly-lumpy mattress while shedding his outer robes, and collapses facefirst onto the cushions for a much-deserved five full hours of sleep!
He’s only just closed his eyes when a heavy body collapses onto him from above.
Shang Qinghua shrieks out loud! He screams like he’s being attacked by a hundred serpents! He scrabbles wildly under the oppressive weight of this obviously-an-assassin, yelling and hitting out blindly with his fists in fright!!
The person crushing him gives a harsh grunt and slaps a cold, heavy hand over his mouth.
Shang Qinghua freezes in place, his voice disappearing completely in fear.
It’s Mobei Jun!
Mobei Jun removes his oppressive hand once he’s sure that Shang Qinghua won’t try and scream again. He grunts again and thankfully, rolls to one side so that he isn’t squashing Shang Qinghua into a disciple-shaped human pancake anymore.
Shang Qinghua scrambles off the bed to salute hastily and make his respects, feeling deeply resentful at this turn of events. This is obviously Mobei Jun’s idea of a good time, showing up unexpectedly in Shang Qinghua’s chambers at the worst time to torment him, lording over his bed all self-satisfied, demanding information or simply scaring the wits out of Shang Qinghua just for the hell of it! He opens his mouth to greet Mobei Jun when the sight of fresh blood smeared on his king’s face stops him short.
“Quiet,” Mobei Jun says. His voice, usually so cool and cutting, is all low and raspy. He sways slightly in place when he sits up and Shang Qinghua has to suppress his gasp of shock, nervously taking in his king's condition with wide eyes. Mobei Jun is clutching some kind of injury on his right side, and it’s very likely that he’s hurt elsewhere in places Shang Qinghua can’t see. There’s blood smeared on his face and another dark line of it oozing stickily from somewhere in his hairline, which is mussed and in obvious disarray. His eyes are slightly hazy, his gaze off-center as he glares at Shang Qinghua in foul temper.
This isn’t the first time Mobei Jun has done this.
During the first of these unexpected visits, the imperious and bad-tempered young king had popped into existence in the leisure house while Shang Qinghua was attempting to finish an important correspondence for his Shifu, using his very best calligraphy. Needless to say, the letter was ruined! More importantly, Mobei Jun had been bleeding profusely from his qi qiao, shocking Shang Qinghua nearly to death! He’d snarled threateningly at Shang Qinghua's stammered attempts to help, glowering furiously from his nest in the bed with all the dignity of a wounded polecat. He'd finally suffered Shang Qinghua's assistance with surly and cold-blooded fury, allowing Shang Qinghua to dress and clean his injuries and mend his robes and fetch him tea, and bring him snacks, and - ah the rest isn't important.
So Shang Qinghua has some idea of what to expect from these midnight pit stops. Still, this is the first time that Shang Qinghua has seen Mobei Jun so heavily wounded. It’s unexpectedly heartwrenching. This is his precious favorite, after all. His personal bias!
“My king!” he says, quieter, clasping his hands together beseechingly. “Please allow this servant to assist you.”
Please, my king! Before those bloodstains sink into the embroidered fabric of your robes and become impossible to rinse out!
Mobei Jun snarls at him but there’s no heat behind it, and when Shang Qinghua edges closer, Mobei Jun allows it without protest. Shang Qinghua makes a detour for the patchwork medical kit he keeps stocked in his closet for just this sort of situation before approaching his king warily, worried that he’ll lash out in his bad mood.
“My king,” he says hesitantly, opening the box of medical supplies. “Allow this servant to attend to your injuries?”
Mobei Jun makes a deeply displeased sound and begrudgingly starts to disrobe. His movements are stiff, slow, pained. Shang Qinghua only ogles him a little as he undresses, most of his brainpower occupied wondering what kind of enemy his king had fought for him to end up in such a state. He hadn’t spent any time on Mobei Jun’s growing pains during this period of time in PIDW. In fact, Mobei Jun hadn’t even been introduced yet. All the focus was obviously on the scum villain dramatically abusing his poor white lotus disciple.
He wonders what awful trials this world has cooked up for Mobei Jun in the lack of any canon direction from yours truly. Is Mobei Jun challenging other demonic tribes for better control of the northern lands? Is he fighting oversized monsters in order to prove his strength to his own backstabbing relatives and court members? Shang Qinghua really has no idea and it’s not like Mobei Jun will tell him if he asks, right?
“An assassination attempt,” Mobei Jun says, practically spitting with anger.
Shang Qinghua jumps a good foot into the air in fright. Oh shit! Has he been musing out loud again? What a bad habit! He really needs to stop that, it’s definitely going to get him killed someday!
“Ah, my king obviously prevailed! What kind of small fry could even hope to challenge the great strength of the demon king of the north, huh? Sheer idiocy! My king must have reduced them to shreds!” Shang Qinghua says, quick to pat Mobei Jun’s gently bruised ego. No need to mention how his king came out of the encounter in such a rough state!
Mobei Jun grunts and finally shrugs out of his last inner robe, peeling the fabric away to reveal his injuries for Shang Qinghua’s inspection.
Shang Qinghua winces as he surveys the damage. Aish this is really a job for Qian Cao, not An Ding. Just looking at the gruesome injuries clawed across Mobei Jun’s chest and abdomen is sort of making him nauseous. If Mobei Jun weren’t a demon, this would be way beyond Shang Qinghua's meager healing capabilities. Fortunately, Mobei Jun is a demon, and Shang Qinghua is going to do his best, and his king’s plot armor and super-speed demonic healing will definitely kick in to pick up the slack, and this will all be neatly resolved by tomorrow morning!
He realizes what this means for his plans of sleeping peacefully through the night and nearly bursts into tears on the spot! Why is life so hard, huh? Why does this old man have to suffer like this, huh?!
Resigning himself to sleeplessness and despair, he starts to sort through the medical supplies, separating out the bandages, salves, poultices and various healing creams he’d pilfered during the course of many standard inventory deliveries to and from Qian Cao Peak.
Mobei Jun unenthusiastically allows himself to be patched up and thankfully, does not lash out even once. Shang Qinghua, who was expecting to be roundly cuffed about the ears for the sheer insolence of existing in his king’s presence, is unexpectedly grateful. It’s only when Mobei Jun’s head dips heavily for the second time in as many minutes that he realizes that the only reason he’s remained bruise-free so far is probably because Mobei Jun is too tired to beat on him for sport.
Whatever! He’ll take it! Small mercies are still mercies! He finishes up as quickly as possible, not wanting to test his luck.
Mobei Jun, now actively drowsing, startles awake when Shang Qinghua clears his throat loudly. He shoots Shang Qinghua a nasty look that could freeze a man solid at twenty paces! Shang Qinghua, who has cultivated a slight tolerance to this kind of look through repeated exposure, only shivers in place, cringing in expectation of his king’s heavy fist.
“My king!” he cries, covering his head before Mobei Jun can hit him. “This faithful servant is finished! Will my king remain in this humble servant’s meager quarters for the night, or…?”
Mobei Jun eyes him with disdain. “This Mobei Jun will remain,” he says dismissively, as if it’s an obvious conclusion.
Peh! ‘This Mobei Jun will remain.’ Why!! My king, go back to your palace! Go back to your luxurious bed with its silken sheets! Why are you stealing this old man’s lumpy mattress and understuffed cushions?!
Shang Qinghua pastes on a subservient smile and bows deeply. “Ah, of course, of course! My king is obviously welcome to everything this humble servant owns. This one will withdraw to give my king some privacy for the night then.” He starts to sidle away in the direction of his study, already planning to nap on the seat cushion of his writing desk when Mobei Jun’s cold voice freezes him in his tracks.
Ah come on! What now?!
Shang Qinghua cringes, debating the merits of running very quickly to the other room and having to face his king’s wrath in the morning when he’s fully recovered. He turns around immediately and grins weakly.
“Yes, my king?”
Mobei Jun toes the discarded pile of bloody robes at the foot of Shang Qinghua’s bed. “Clean this.”
Shang Qinghua grits his teeth! This is bullying! Bullying of the highest degree!
“Ah my king, it’s late...” he hedges.
Mobei Jun doesn’t even have to say anything. He fixes Shang Qinghua with a look. The ambient temperature drops about ten degrees in two seconds.
Shang Qinghua yelps and dips hastily into a bow. “Of course! Of course! As my king commands! This servant will get right on it!” He scurries forward and starts to hastily gather the bloody robes from the floor, expertly dodging Mobei Jun’s small kick while retreating. If he weeps a little with fury as he furtively gathers laundry supplies from the storeroom and makes the arduous round trip to gather water, that’s his secret to bear! At the very least, having his own living space means he can do this load of midnight laundry in solitude instead of having to slip into the communal laundry area and risk discovery. One of the (very few) benefits to being head disciple!
Shang Qinghua sighs as he drops his armful of Mobei Jun’s bloody robes into the water to soak, prodding them until they’re spread out evenly. He gives the closed door leading to the main living area an evil look. Mobei Jun is probably settled all nice and cozy on his bed, curled leisurely into those blankets that he doesn’t even need, rearranging all of Shang Qinghua’s cushions to his liking and squashing them flat! Spoiled! Utterly spoiled! Spoiled beyond compare!
...and who does he have to blame for that, huh? He shakes his head and sighs again as he squats down over the wooden basin, getting to work scrubbing the blood out.
The moon rises overhead and travels slowly across the night sky, casting long watery shadows through the window as he works steadily, hands moving on autopilot in a mindless rhythm of scrub, dunk, soak, rinse, repeat with only the sound of wet fabric punctuating his aimless thoughts.
He’s wondering what kind of food will be served for breakfast and whether he has time to take a bath before he has to attend to his morning duties when he notices that the robe currently under his hands is a different texture than the one he was scrubbing before. Frowning, he peers into the rusty water before lifting the fabric to the light to inspect it.
To his surprise, it’s that same animal skin from the very first time he met his king. What’s it doing here? Why is Mobei Jun hauling it around with him? He didn't really get the chance to look at it closely that first time so he studies it now, turning it in his hands so that the fur catches the soft pale light of the gibbous moon.
It's a nice pelt, the fur a deep silky grey with darker dapples throughout, fading lighter towards the ends. Little beads of water roll off the sides, repelled by some natural property of the fur. He's not sure what animal it comes from, but it's beautifully preserved - so well tanned that it almost feels like the fur and skin of some living creature when Shang Qinghua runs an exploratory hand over it. He turns it around a few more times, admiring the way the short, dense fur sheens where it catches the moonlight before he dunks it back into the washwater for a final rinse, transferring it into a basin of clean water to soak. No idea why Mobei Jun has it on him, but at least it’ll be clean when he wakes up!
The moon is descending when Shang Qinghua finally finishes getting all the wet laundry onto drying racks. Exhausted, he retreats to his study, curls up with his head pillowed sadly on the seat cushion to his writing desk, and falls asleep instantly.
Very very early the next morning, Mobei Jun bursts violently into the study, reducing the door to splinters with the force of his entry.
Shang Qinghua screams halfheartedly, too tired to manage the spirit for a full-throated yell even as Mobei Jun grabs him by the collar of his inner robes and hauls him into the air.
"Where is it?!" he demands, his roar rattling the rafters. Shang Qinghua hears the fabric of his robes creak warningly as he flails in midair, held up only by Mobei Jun’s fist.
“What?! What? Where’s what, my king?!” he cries, disoriented, confused, and generally terrified.
Mobei Jun snarls and shakes him angrily. Shang Qinghua can feel his brain rattling about in his skull like a ricocheting pinball. My king, you’re going to give this old man a head injury like this! He starts to wail openly, begging for mercy and pleading ignorance! How is this servant supposed to help if he doesn't know what you're looking for, my king?!
Mobei Jun drops him abruptly and stalks over to the other room where his robes are laid out, flat and drying. Shang Qinghua picks himself up from the floor, holding his spinning head in his hands and feeling like a much-abused sack of rice. Good to see that Mobei Jun is back to his usual cold-hearted and overbearing self!
He watches dizzily as Mobei Jun yanks his robes off the drying racks. They're still sort of soggy, but he doesn't seem to care, shrugging angrily into them without even checking to see how clean they are! When he’s fully dressed in his damp robes, he whirls and gives Shang Qinghua an especially vicious glare before stepping back into a shadowy portal and disappearing very anticlimactically from the leisure house without another word.
Shang Qinghua waits a few beats to make sure he’s really gone before hauling himself shakily to his feet. He looks at the wreckage of his study door, the overturned mess of drying racks and upended laundry equipment in his bathing area, and heaves a great sigh. This old man’s life is hard enough already! No need to add to it with unnecessary difficulties like this, my king!
He sets about righting the overturned drying racks and picking up the scattered supplies from the tile floor, folding them against the wall and wondering how he’s going to explain the very obvious person-shaped hole in what’s left of the study door.
In the mess, he completely forgets about the animal skin that was mixed up in his king’s robes.
After the plot points have wrapped up all nicely with Bingmei finding eternal happiness nestled in the arms and between the legs of one single man, Shang Qinghua thinks that maybe he’ll finally get a little bit of much-needed downtime.
He was wrong!
Not only does he have to go through an incredibly harrowing ordeal involving Mobei Jun’s ascension ceremony, one (1) murderous uncle, and a month of self-imposed isolation leading to a close call with death by impalation, but he doesn’t even get any extra PTO out of it!!
(The month he spent wandering penniless, friendless, hungry, and in deep existential agony does not count as a vacation.)
Does he at least get to relax a little, limited to light clerical duties while his leg recovers and he works off the trauma of nearly being killed multiple times? No!! He does not! Because Luo Binghe, in the process of obtaining his happy ending, has abandoned his responsibilities and duties as sovereign of the demon realm in favor of his perpetual honeymoon with Shen Qingqiu!
Well, not abandoned abandoned. He delegated his duties before he left. This means he dumped them all onto the broad, sexy shoulders of his most loyal subordinate, Mobei Jun!
Not to say that Mobei Jun can't handle it. But with Shang Qinghua now returned to the northern palace, Mobei Jun does some delegating too, which means the majority of the administrative work now falls squarely onto the skinny, overworked shoulders of one Shang Qinghua.
Please, my king! This old man is still recovering! This master still has a broken leg! He hasn't been this overworked since he first made head disciple...
And on top of that, Mobei Jun is acting strange! Shang Qinghua had really thought that his king was joking (as much as someone like Mobei Jun can joke…) when he talked about making noodles. Really, even the idea is ridiculous! Mobei Jun, a proud and arrogant demon king, puttering away in the kitchen with apron and kitchen mitts on, diligently tending the fire, slaving over a bowl of hand-pulled noodles for someone like Shang Qinghua? Pfft! The mental image is completely incongruous with reality!
He thoughtfully does not consider how Luo Binghe is someone else who fits this paradoxical image perfectly and puts it out of his mind. This meant he was shocked and slightly terrified, reacting with a hysterical scream when Mobei Jun arrived in his small bedroom at midnight in a dramatic whirl of shadow, producing a chalky, lukewarm, completely inedible bowl of noodles that made Shang Qinghua shed actual tears as he choked it down!
And that wasn't the end of it either! He continues to appear out of nowhere to present Shang Qinghua with absolutely terrible bowls of noodles, staring with an odd and frightening intensity until Shang Qinghua starts eating. Casually dropping packages into Shang Qinghua's lap that run the range from items of clothing to ancient gem-encrusted demonic artifacts rivaling the entire net worth of An Ding Peak! He remains unusually attentive, to the point where Shang Qinghua sometimes has the odd feeling that his king is following him through the hallways. He’s taken to randomly sitting in while Shang Qinghua is doing paperwork, doing nothing, saying nothing, simply watching him work in chilling silence until Shang Qinghua starts sweating from the tense and overbearing atmosphere! Finally, there was that one time where he could’ve sworn that he woke up to Mobei Jun sitting at his bedside, but he’d done a double take, still groggy and half-asleep, and there was nobody there?
In short, weird! It’s all so weird! Why are you being so strangely sticky, my king?
And then, as if bringing Shang Qinghua to his ascension ceremony wasn’t nearly the cause of both their deaths, Mobei Jun insists on dragging him to meetings he really shouldn't be attending! Like this extremely tense negotiation with some upstart demon clan claiming to represent the Yinhai water demons of the northern black sea.
My king! Did you learn nothing from your disaster of an ascension ceremony? Didn’t you receive a very instructive lesson on the dangers of bringing the wrong person to highly-charged political situations rife with imminent combat?!
Shang Qinghua shivers weakly, huddling into the thick fur lining of the cloak that Mobei Jun had given him and trying not to sniffle too loudly. The meeting area for this truce is a hotly-contested bay that marks the border between the northern desertlands and the territory of the Yinhai demon clan. The dark water on the Mobei side of the divide is completely frozen over into a sheet of mottled ice a foot and a half thick. All the participants are arrayed on the slate-grey surface in a tense standoff as the freezing ocean wind howls wildly around them, whipping hair into faces, pinging off the shining tips of spears and halberds.
A riveting scene! Incredibly dramatic!
Also incredibly fucking uncomfortable for any poor human who might have been dragged along. The unrelenting wind chill drops the already-freezing temperature to a level of numbing cold that makes Shang Qinghua feel like he’s going to lose his toes. Plus, the tension here is as thick as a five-tier wedding cake!
The opposing demons are arrayed threateningly across the divide, armed to the teeth and bristling with barely-contained menace in comparison to Mobei Jun’s small diplomatic party, which consists of Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun’s minister of trade, and a convoy of guards. The water demons don’t look like they’re here for peaceful truce talks! They definitely don’t look like they’re going to lay their weapons down and kindly acquiesce to leaving Mobei Jun’s merchants alone!
He glances despairingly at Mobei Jun, who stands next to him at the head of their convoy, looking extremely regal and very dignified indeed. The arctic wind ruffles the heavy fur of his cloak and swirls his hair in dramatic snapping trails across his chest and shoulders, making him look darkly handsome and coldly menacing. An icy and arrogant beauty only amplified by the stark wilderness of the dramatic seascape around them!
Ah, he’s getting distracted. Back to the matter at hand.
My king! Why did you bring this servant with you? The only thing this master can contribute to the situation is to become a convenient hostage!
Mobei Jun, uncaring of his despairing internal dialogue, motions to begin the negotiations.
As expected with most demon negotiations, hostilities break out.
Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun’s minister of trade are in the process of trying to work out some kind of deal that doesn’t involve the other demons killing and robbing their merchant caravans when the opposing party’s leader slams his weapon into the ice, obviously at the limit of his patience.
“Enough of this!” he shouts, gesturing violently with his oversized mace in a way that makes Shang Qinghua skitter immediately back to the safety of Mobei Jun’s side. “You Mobei clan demons, always thinking you have the right to trample over others.” He gestures expansively at the frozen peninsula around them. “Negotiations? What negotiations! This bay isn’t even yours by rights and you have the audacity to march your people through it and try to haggle with us for its use?! Anything the black water touches has always belonged to the Yinhai clan! You Mobei clan need to learn your place!”
Shang Qinghua winces. Ah, fish uncle, you had better sit back down! Sure, the Yinhai clan likes to claim that whatever the water touches is their territory, but they’ve been unable to beat back the Mobei clan for generations now! Why bring up this moldy old drama and stir up trouble for both clans with this whole murdering-the-merchants business? What bad faith negotiations!
Mobei Jun seems to agree because he snorts coolly. “Rights? What rights do you have without the strength to back it? Has the Yinhai clan become so weak that it must rely on old superstitions to hold its territories?” He tilts his head mockingly. “The route remains Mobei territory. You will allow the traders through untouched. There will be no further warning.”
Very cool, my king! No recycled monologues for Mobei Jun, just straight fire! Uh - straight ice!!
The other demon is incensed by Mobei Jun’s declaration, swelling slowly like a pufferfish with sheer fury. “Yinhai Jun won’t stand for this!” he roars, his delegation seething behind him and shouting agreement like good little mob members.
Shang Qinghua snorts. As if Yinhai Jun even knows who this rando is. He doesn’t even look like he’s from the Yinhai branch family, much less part of the actual Yinhai clan!
Mobei Jun obviously thinks the same from the derisive once-over he gives the other demon before turning away, casually dismissive.
Because this is how every two-bit, 40 IQ villain works in this world, the water demon lets out a furious roar, raises his morningstar, and mounts a running charge at Mobei Jun’s back.
Shang Qinghua wishes he had some melon seeds for this! He loves getting to see his king take down these uppity small fry! Hopefully it’ll be interesting if Mobei Jun feels like playing with his food a little!
Mobei Jun doesn’t even turn around, flicking several spears of dark ice over his shoulder. The water demon ducks low to the ground to avoid them and then inexplicably, he veers off course and slams his mace into the thick gray ice a good twenty feet short of the Mobei convoy.
Shang Qinghua nearly laughs out loud! What terrible aim!
Then, an ominous crack as loud as a gunshot snaps through the air.
Shang Qinghua looks down right as a great crack zigzags through the thick ice between his legs, radiating outward from the furrow created by the mace. He looks up, down, back up. This seems...like an unreasonably large crack for such a small impact? This ice is like...a foot thick, frozen solid by the Mobei clan’s ice powers. It shouldn’t crack so easily?
Mobei Jun is turning back around, sensing something amiss when the water demon grins and leaps into the air again, weapon held aloft, bringing it crashing down once again onto the thick ice.
This time, all hell breaks loose.
A vast explosion of dark water bursts up through the ice, an enormous geyser at least a story tall breaching the surface in a monstrous rift! The ice all around the eruption heaves upwards, following the sudden expansion of water before collapsing back, crashing heavily down onto the rapidly-cracking ice sheet around them, breaking it apart with great concussive impacts!
Even as Shang Qinghua screams and dodges for his life, he can see dark threads of demonic energy racing through the floes, moving with the black water to compromise the integrity of the ice sheet underfoot, weakening it!
More dark water fountains up over the gray ice, moving like it has a life of its own, fracturing the great expanse of solid ice into tenuous floating chunks in the black sea. Some of the guards and Mobei Jun’s minister of trade are closer to the landward side of the bay, and they take off at a dead run across the shattering ice sheet, jumping from floe to floe, leaping from the shrinking sea ice into the shallows as the pieces grow too small to support their weight, scrambling to bedraggled safety on the shoreline.
This leaves Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun, and a few of the guards stranded on the rapidly-thinning floes of ice in the middle of the bay. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the dark water around them starts to churn and roar, forming what is obviously some kind of huge whirlpool. The remaining ice floes begin to spiral, picking up speed as the whirlpool’s current catches them, sending them whirling around each other like the world's most awful teacups ride! Inevitably, they start to crash together, sending the hapless occupants flying into the dark water.
Shang Qinghua wants to scream!!
This was an ambush! A setup! A total trap! And they literally walked into it, across it, and over it!! This obvious manipulation of black water can only mean an actual member of the Yinhai clan is here, pulling the strings from under the surface! Who knew that no-name rando actually had someone legit backing him?!
It’s then that Shang Qinghua notices that all the members of the water demon’s company are conspicuously absent. Where...? Ah. Fuck. That’s right, they’re water demons. They probably dove in the moment everything exploded, and they’re definitely all waiting underwater now, ready to kill anyone who falls in.
“My king!” he cries, hurriedly unsheathing his sword and jumping on, leaving a large space behind him for Mobei Jun. “There’s no shame in retreat! Let’s get out of here while we can!”
Mobei Jun grunts at him, annoyed. He does not get onto the sword. Instead, he bends down and rests one hand on the ice floe underfoot. His eyes glow a bright, chilling blue, and the air around Shang Qinghua becomes cold enough to hurt his teeth, a feeling like his blood is turning to slush in his veins, like his eyeballs are freezing solid in their sockets!
A thick layer of ice radiates out from Mobei Jun’s hand, racing across the open sea to challenge the sucking current from the increasingly-larger whirlpool, expanding faster than the black water can break it up. Is he trying to remake the entire ice sheet?!
Just as Shang Qinghua is feeling heartened by how incredibly OP his king is, a slippery shape leaps out of the water and crashes into Mobei Jun, knocking him directly into the black sea!!
Shang Qinghua lets out a horrified shout and darts over to the expanding ripples, but before he can do more than think crazy thoughts about diving in, several spears rocket out of the water, forcing him to dodge and weave for his life!
Fuck! Go away, you stupid mob villains! You insignificant background chaff!
As Shang Qinghua circles in a wide arc to avoid the projectiles, his mind is racing, trying to come up with some kind of strategy that doesn’t involve him diving into the demon-infested ocean and dying a futile death. Can Mobei Jun swim? His king may be one of the strongest demons in the world, but trapped in this swirling and resentful black water, the demons of the Yinhai clan have an unfair advantage. Even if he can swim, Mobei Jun still needs to breathe! If he can’t make it back up to the surface, his king will - he’ll -!
"My king!” he shouts, voice cracking as he hovers over the rapidly-disappearing ripples. How long has it been since he went under? How long can Mobei Jun hold his breath?
Shang Qinghua bites his lip, agonized. Just the thought of diving into that freezing black water is enough to freeze his bones solid. He thinks of Mobei Jun, struggling in the airless, drowning dark against an unknown assailant and he shucks his cloak, teeth chattering. Maybe if he clings tight onto his sword, he won’t be dislodged when he dives in and he can cut through the water like it’s air instead of swimming, and there might still be a chance -
A spear ricochets abruptly off the hilt of his sword, knocking him out of the air and sending him flying across the open water. He screams the whole way down and only barely manages to make a messy crash landing on the newly-formed ice floe instead of plunging headlong into the sea to his death.
His sword bounces off the ice, skidding wildly away from him as he tumbles ass over teakettle. Shang Qinghua shouts and scrabbles for it, but to his horror, it slips into the sea right before his eyes. He draws his fingers into a sword sign and calls it back frantically, but the blade doesn’t respond, caught in the miasmic pressure exerted by the dark water.
Trapped. He’s trapped! He can’t even save himself, much less save his king! Useless! Useless, stupid author!
As he’s thinking that, something heaves itself out of the sea and onto the sheet of ice. Shang Qinghua's heart leaps into his throat! ...and just as quickly, it drops queasily back into his stomach as he takes in the fins and gills of one of the enemy water demons. It grins at him, and holds up a wicked-looking sword with a serrated edge. Shang Qinghua glances behind him to see if he can make a break for it, but there’s a good hundred yards or so of swirling black ocean between him and land. He’s stranded on the open water, a complete sitting duck! Unarmed, despairing, and at a complete disadvantage, he can only reach into his sleeves for his emergency talismans.
He spends the next several minutes shouting, cursing, flinging talismans, and generally fighting for his life! Because life is Just Like That, several more water demons crawl out of the dark sea, turning this one-on-one fight into a totally unfair melee battle!
Shang Qinghua thinks that he’s holding his own pretty admirably for being unarmed! But surrounded, beleaguered, and harassed on all sides like a fox within a circle of hounds, it’s only a matter of time before one of the demons manages to get in a hit through his protective barrier of talismans, scoring a bloody line down his back. Shang Qinghua twists, shouting with pain and hurling one of his last concussive talismans at the offender, gratified to see it blast the demon straight off the ice and into the water.
His celebration is short-lived and he has to immediately jump back as another demon takes a swipe at him. He clutches his last few offensive talismans with trembling fingers, trying to figure a way out of this. There are four demons remaining, and he only has three talismans left, plus his faltering barrier. He can do this. He has to do this. If he remains alive, then maybe - maybe he can bring Mobei Jun back. Maybe there’s some way, some method he’s forgotten about, something, anything -
The four demons, reaching the end of their patience, roar and do a concerted charge, weapons raised. Shang Qinghua hurriedly tosses out two talismans, blasting one demon off the floe and setting the other one on fire. He flings himself into a dodge roll, hissing with pain as his injury thanks him for the insult. No time to worry about that! The two remaining demons have accidentally clashed with each other, their weapons locked as they squabble and shove at each other to get free.
Chance! Shang Qinghua takes the opportunity to cast his last talisman, catching both of them in one decisive hit!
The demons, in a rarely-seen act of cooperative spirit for their IQ level, leap apart, abandoning their weapons to avoid the talisman, leaving Shang Qinghua completely unarmed and still stranded, a sparrow facing down two vipers!!
Shang Qinghua’s mind is completely empty as the demons stalk towards him. For once, he’s out of words, out of ideas, out of luck. Maybe it’s better this way, for him to go down with his king. It would be better than surviving him, forced to continue on in his absence, the hole created by his death an unpatchable and inescapable wound.
He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, gathering his qi for one last explosive burst a la Shen Qingqiu before shaking his head wildly. No! It can’t end like this! He didn’t survive so much bullshit just to be done in by two fucking no-name cannon fodder demons! If he’s going to die, he wants it to be a dramatic and splendid death, full of pathos and gratuitous weeping!! He has to try! He can’t give up on Mobei Jun so easily!
He brings his fists up, wishing that he’d attended the Liu Qingge school of hard knocks to prepare for this situation. Ha! As if Liu Qingge would have deigned to waste his time on Shang Qinghua. All of Liu Qingge's carefully-pulled educational punches are reserved for one Shen Qingqiu! Anyways, his skill in hand-to-hand combat is
nonexistent pathetic, but his fists are all he’s got right now, so fisticuffs it is! In a fit of wuxia-inspired bravado, and because these are his last moments alive and there are no other witnesses, he extends a hand and makes the universally-understood 'come and get it' motion with two fingers.
The two demons glance at each other in open disbelief before looking back at him, smirking. As one, they charge.
Right as the demons are about to reach him, an enormous creature breaches the surface of the black water, propelling itself directly onto the floe in one huge surge of violent motion, colliding head-on with the demons and bringing them with it as it slides back into the sea, leaving only a dark smear of blood across the ice.
It all happens so fast that Shang Qinghua doesn’t even have time to make a sound, only screaming loudly after the fact, falling ungracefully onto his ass as the ice floe rocks crazily in the wake of the monster. He scrambles back to his feet, trying to keep his balance and looking around wildly, all bravado completely gone.
What the fuck! What the fuck!! What the fuck was that?! Is that some pet monster that the Yinhai demons unleashed? Fuck fuck fuck! Fuck dying nobly with great spectacle!! He doesn’t want to be eaten alive!
Shaking, he scrambles across the ice to get to the middle of the floe, where he hugs his knees, curling up very small and trying to present less of a target. Maybe that monster will be satisfied with its hefty snack of two water demons? It’s not like he can even mount an escape, he’s still stranded up blackwater sea without a paddle! And it’s not like he can row himself back to shore with the whirlpool -
Shang Qinghua pauses and uncurls, looking around. The ocean wind whistles shrilly across the bay, which is completely silent except for the restless movement of the waves.
The whirlpool is gone.
Shang Qinghua rubs his eyes and looks around again just to be sure. It’s gone, it’s really gone!
What happened? Did the Yinhai demon leave? They should have at least made an appearance, right? That’s what villains are supposed to do! They show up in front of the characters and monologue about their evil plans for betrayal and death, only that never happened! The demon just stayed underwater, and what...got bored and left after taking out Mobei Jun, leaving this monster to clean up the mess? Shang Qinghua grits his teeth, suddenly furious.
How dare you! At least take responsibility for Mobei Jun’s death! Fucking coward!
An ominous shape moves in his peripheral vision, breaking up his despairing thoughts. Shang Qinghua watches with bated breath as something enormous moves just under the surface of the dark water, slipping smoothly around the remaining ice floes, a silent menace lurking just out of sight. He turns in a slow circle, trying to keep his eyes on it, but it sinks deeper underwater and he loses track of it.
Fuck. It’s coming back for him.
He starts circulating his qi for an attack. He’ll probably only get one chance before it gets its teeth into him so it has to be a good one. You can do this, Shang Qinghua! Survive and endure for your king! He takes a defensive position, circling slowly, hands held out before him, already charged with spiritual energy. The sussurating whisper of the surf grinds his composure down as he waits, trembling, waiting for something to happen.
After what feels like an interminable amount of time, something finally bursts out of the sea with a great splash, crashing heavily onto the ice floe and making it rock wildly underfoot, sending Shang Qinghua tumbling down.
Attack? What attack?! Forget attacking! Terror overrides every other instinct and all he ends up doing is screaming and putting his hands uselessly over his head, curling up into a futile defensive ball as the creature closes in.
Please please please. At least let it be quick.
He lies in rigid, petrified silence, arms curled around his head, thinking miserably of wildebeest and zebra being mowed down and savaged by hungry lions and trying not to whimper. The ice shakes under him, rattled by the heavy movements of something massive approaching. Shang Qinghua squeezes his eyes shut as something comes into his line of sight. He can smell it now, the heavy briny odor of something that lives in the sea.
There’s movement before him and then wet salt spray splatters his face in freezing droplets, the deep bass exhale of an enormous predator. Shang Qinghua gives up all pretense and starts to whimper helplessly. When something touches his back, he screams aloud, miserable and terrified and waiting for death.
He waits and waits and waits...and still, there’s no pain. Nothing bites savagely into him, no vicious claws tear into his body to rip him apart. Unable to maintain such a high-key state of sustained terror, Shang Qinghua finally uncurls slightly to look his death in the face and figure out why it’s not eating him.
He regrets it immediately, his face draining immediately of all blood, leaving him as pale as a corpse!
Before him is an absolutely monstrous leopard seal, fresh blood still staining its snout and mouth like a gruesome mask. Its enormous body nearly takes up the entire floe, its sleek head easily twice the size of Shang Qinghua's torso. This beast could pop off Shang Qinghua's head and eat it like a grape if it wanted to!
Why...isn’t it doing that?
Shang Qinghua uncurls a little bit more, trembling like a leaf. The monster simply watches him, blinking slowly a few times and making no move to lunge forward and devour him. Shang Qinghua blinks back before realizing that those eyes are very familiar. He knows that exact shade of blue, knows it like the back of his own hand.
"My king?” He breathes, barely daring to hope.
The seal tilts its head and huffs, exhaling disdainfully in a cloud of icy spray. It brings its tail closer in a graceful curve. There, sheltered in the bulwark of its huge body lies Shang Qinghua’s sword and cloak.
“My sword!” Shang Qinghua cries, abandoning his terrified huddle to scramble on all fours across the ice and grab the weapon. The seal makes an unsatisfied noise. “Thank you!” Shang Qinghua adds hastily, already sheathing the blade. He grabs his sodden cloak to shove it into his qiankun pouch and makes a face at how heavy it is. Then he remembers that there’s a 1000-kilo apex predator of mysterious origin at his unprotected back and whirls around.
The seal was in the process of sniffing him and its head is so close that they both jerk back, startled. Shang Qinghua bites his lip, studying it. He's sure, he’s so sure this is Mobei Jun, but what if he's wrong?
“Is that really you, my king?” he asks, breathless with hope.
In response, the seal starts to shrink, folding gracefully in upon itself in flashes of mottled sealskin until only Mobei Jun remains in front of him, his dark hair dripping wet, his face cold and impassive.
Shang Qinghua doesn’t immediately burst into tears of relief, but it’s really fucking close!
“My king!!” he wails, clutching the soaked cloak to him and shaking it in lieu of embracing Mobei Jun’s thigh. “This servant thought you drowned! This servant thought you died! I’m so happy you’re okay!"
Mobei Jun snorts and picks him up by the scruff of his robes, setting him on his feet. “As if demons of such low caliber could hope to defeat this Mobei Jun,” he says imperiously, slicking his wet hair back with such elegance that it would make a model weep.
Shang Qinghua isn’t finished. “- and then when I tried to dive in to find you, those demons knocked me off my sword, and then my sword fell in the water and then I had to fight, and-”
That makes Mobei Jun pause. His eyes flicker across Shang Qinghua, taking in the various scrapes and injuries earned during the scuffle. "You're injured."
“-and you're a shapeshifter?! And you didn't tell me? My king!!!”
Mobei Jun’s eyes narrow and he reaches out to pick Shang Qinghua up by the collar, giving him a little shake. “Shang Qinghua. You are injured.”
“I - huh? Oh. Uh, only a little, my king. Trivial, really!” He winces slightly as his hurts start making themselves known in the absence of panic-fueled adrenaline.
Mobei Jun frowns some more. “Come,” he says, turning and forming a portal with one hand, striding towards it.
Shang Qinghua, watching Mobei Jun’s extremely shapely buttocks bounce lightly as he walks, realizes very abruptly that his king is completely naked aside from his sealskin! The artful drapery of the pelt across his king's broad chest and waist leaves his backside bare like a badly-fitted hospital gown! His eyes bug out and his mouth flaps uselessly for a few long seconds before he rushes after Mobei Jun, bowing his head to give him some privacy.
“My king, ah, your uh - your cheeks - I mean, your clothes! Your clothes are sort of, uh, gone -” He hastily offers his cloak, making sure to keep his eyes respectfully averted despite the overwhelming temptation to peek!
Mobei Jun eyes the sopping fabric before giving Shang Qinghua a long stare. He does not take the cloak. Instead, he gestures expectantly at the portal.
Shang Qinghua hesitates for a second. He has a feeling that he’s forgetting something. What is it…? Well, if he can't remember it, maybe it's not that important? But what was it -
Mobei Jun, impatient and unamused with his muttering, grabs him around the waist like a bag of potatoes, picking him up effortlessly. Shang Qinghua lets out an extremely unflattering squeal and grabs desperately onto Mobei Jun's pelt for balance, his legs kicking frantically as Mobei Jun takes them both through the portal.
No need for such rough treatment, my king!
Four hours later, Shang Qinghua wakes from a dead sleep, sitting bolt upright with a gasp.
The minister of trade!