The fact that Mobei Jun is capable of an incredibly cool beast transformation doesn’t really sink in until a few days after the fact.
Shang Qinghua has to put a pause on his paperwork to fanboy for a moment when the sheer glory of the concept kicks in, gushing internally over how cool and powerful his king looked! The whole bloody muzzle and finger-length fangs and rippling monster body are now terribly splendid in hindsight with the knowledge that he won’t be eaten alive. Sure, he doesn’t actually remember writing in such a brilliant idea, but he gives himself a few smug pats on the back for a job well done nonetheless!
Still...it puzzles him. Did he really write something like this? He should remember if he did, right? When it comes to Mobei Jun-related plot issues and lore, his retention of his own writing is much better than usual. And like...a seal? An enormous and extremely impressive monster seal capable of tearing apart a human like a wet paper bag, yes, but still...why a seal? Can Mobei Jun turn into other animals too? Is that why he always carries that animal skin around with him? Is it the source of his magical animal transformation powers, like sailor moon’s scepter? Ah, now he's bummed that he missed his king's transformation sequence!
These thoughts plague him for the rest of the day, tickling at the back of his mind like an unscratched itch. It’s not like he can ask Mobei Jun about it either! His king hasn’t acknowledged what happened at the bay besides imposing a few harsh trade sanctions against the Yinhai clan. The one time he'd attempted to bring it up, Mobei Jun had shot him a look severe enough to freeze him solid. Literally! Shang Qinghua's boots had frozen to the ground, trapping him in place for a good hour! Mobei Jun obviously doesn't want to talk about it, and Shang Qinghua hasn't tried to ask him again, despite overflowing with a thousand questions.
A day grows into a week, a week stretches into two weeks, then three, and Shang Qinghua is no closer to obtaining more transformation-related information because there’s just no good segue to broach the subject. ‘My king! I have some paperwork for you to look over, and by the way, could you tell me a bit more about your incredibly cool beast transformation?’ ‘My king! I managed to find a provider for the snow pears that you like so much! Also, speaking of things you like, do you enjoy turning into an enormous seal?’
Terrible. Absolutely terrible! Rip up the scripts, they’re no good at all! At this point, he might as well just give up...
But before he can start a furtive deep-dive into whatever animal transformation myths can be found in the palace library and treasure vaults, Mobei Jun
kidnaps recruits him to help capture some monster that Shen Qingqiu Luo Binghe wants. Why Luo Binghe couldn’t come along with them or gone himself is something Shang Qinghua doesn’t want to ponder on for too long, so he follows his king obediently into the portal. Hey, thinking about it, it’ll just be him and Mobei Jun! One-on-one quality time! This might just be the opportunity he needs to broach the transformation topic!
This retrieval mission should be a piece of cake, as simple as reaching into a bag to pluck out a handful of melon seeds, right? How bad can it be?
It’s very, very bad!!!
Shang Qinghua lets out a garbled scream, leaping frantically among a series of rocky pillars as he dodges yet another stream of pressurized water that cuts through the stone behind him like a laser through warm butter!
The spiritual salamander they were sent to capture makes an angry bubbling noise, dipping its nose into the cold spring to gather more ammo, the soft tendrils on its back fluttering threateningly, flashing a bright warning yellow.
Shang Qinghua pauses for breath, hands on his knees as he pants raggedly. He has a few seconds while the thing recharges before he has to dodge again, and he spends them all trying to think of a way to 1) capture the salamander and 2) get both him and Mobei Jun out of here alive. He casts a despairing glance at his king’s unconscious body, slumped ungracefully behind a nearby rock formation.
How did things get like this, ah? Why do things always go wrong for him, huh?!
It had all started out so well.
They’d arrived at the spiritual caves Luo Binghe had told them about, the deep, energy-rich cold spring system within it home to a nine-colors spiritual salamander, whose bodily fluids and secretions have all manner of fascinating medicinal and alchemical properties. Shang Qinghua is willing to bet the entire annual net profit brought in by An Ding Peak’s famous melon seeds that Shen Qingqiu mentioned this creature in passing to Luo Binghe, resulting in this annoying acquisition trip for him and Mobei Jun.
Wandering through the picturesque cold springs while searching for the salamander had been incredibly scenic. The caves have a calm and tranquil atmosphere, with deep pools of cold water and fast-flowing underwater streams lit by the soft blue glow of crystal formations...perfect for sharing secrets! Shang Qinghua had attempted to make conversation in the direction of Mobei Jun’s beast transformation, only to be interrupted by the appearance of the elusive salamander.
Half-spiritual, half-physical, it looks like some sort of ghost as it floats - pale, motionless, and slightly transparent - in the center of a small wellspring, soaking up the plentiful ambient energy.
Mobei Jun, not one to waste any time, immediately encases it solid in a block of ice!
Shang Qinghua has a moment to feel slightly disappointed at the very anticlimactic capture when the salamander ice cube starts to...melt? Mobei Jun raises his hand again, but the salamander bursts free of the encroaching ice with an angry bubbling sound. Shiny, sizzling slime drips furiously from its body, melting Mobei Jun’s ice on contact. The soft-looking, wavy tendrils lining its back in a double row start to flash a deep and menacing red.
Oh. That’s not good!
Shang Qinghua remembers writing about how the colors correspond to different special attacks. He does not remember what the actual attacks are. Is red acid? No, based on RPG conventions, acid should be green or purple, right?
The salamander storms out of its little pond, leaving a thick slime trail behind it that sizzles violently, eating corrosive little pits into the floor. Okay, so red is acid! Also, he’s getting out of here!
He scrambles for higher ground as Mobei Jun leaps into action, forming heavy frozen projectiles and launching them at the salamander - a very cool and flashy move! He’s probably attempting to knock it unconscious via blunt force trauma, but it just looks like he’s trying to skewer it alive.
“My king, don’t kill it!” Shang Qinghua cries, ducking behind a convenient stalagmite formation to safely spectate from. These cold pond caves amplify the salamander’s abilities, but it’s a sort of AOE buff that gives Mobei Jun’s icy powers a boost too. Obviously it’ll be his king’s victory!
As he’s thinking this, the salamander opens its mouth wide. The tendrils on its back shift to a light lavender color, and it spits out a great cloud of bubbles that hang soft and shining in the air, drifting gently in a dense curtain around it.
Mobei Jun rushes forward, not intimidated in the least. The instant he touches the wall of bubbles, he’s blasted backwards into the cave wall like he’d run headfirst into an oncoming freight train!
Shang Qinghua lets out a scream of equal parts horror and confusion. What the hell was that! Avoiding the innocent-looking bubbles that drift his way, he picks up a small rock from the cave floor, tossing it at the closest offender. The bubble pops on impact, but the rock ricochets back with so much force that it leaves a chip on the cave wall!
What the hell are these bubbles?!
Shang Qinghua frantically tries to recall the relevant parts of this chapter as he amasses pebbles from the floor around him to pop any wayward bubbles drifting his way. What was lavender? He thought it was something innocuous...something to do with sleep? He doesn’t remember anything about bubbles with the violent recoil potential of a double-barrel shotgun! He starts making his way towards Mobei Jun, cautiously popping bubbles as he goes and keeping an eye on the salamander, which is still hunkered unmoving behind its bubble cloud shield wall.
“My king!” he hisses as he reaches the impressive hole in the wall. “My king, are you okay?”
Mobei Jun staggers up out of the Mobei-shaped crater, shaking his head and looking absolutely furious. He snarls viciously, clawed hands curling into fists, eyes flashing a violent cyan as he directs a deadly glare at the bubble wall.
“My king, wait! Don’t just charge in again, I can clear a path for you!” Shang Qinghua pulls out a wind talisman from his sleeves, presenting it with a little flourish. See! He can be helpful too!
Mobei Jun jerks his head impatiently and Shang Qinghua obediently activates the talisman, directing the swirling winds in a wide fan shape into the worst of the bubble cloud, blowing them all away.
Ha! Take that!
Mobei Jun leaps forward the moment the path is clear. He - stumbles a little? taking a few more faltering steps before swaying dramatically and collapsing, barely managing to catch himself before he splits his head open on the floor.
Terrible! Bad! No good at all! My king, what was that dreadful performance?
Shang Qinghua darts to his side, casting nervous glances at the salamander, which has puffed itself up angrily at the sight of them, shifting colors rapidly.
“My king! What’s wrong?” he cries, fighting the urge to clutch at Mobei Jun’s shoulder.
Mobei Jun shakes his head, looking sort of out of it. “Nothing,” he says, his voice rough. He tries to stand up again and immediately topples onto his side, unable to keep his balance. He shakes his head again, looking distinctly dizzy, his eyelids drooping heavily.
Oh fuck, he needs to listen to his intuition more! Lavender definitely has something to do with sleep, and those bubbles were all made out of salamander spit. Mobei Jun essentially took a hundredfold dose of that soporific attack by running directly into the bubble wall earlier!
“My king, no, you have to stay awake!” Shang Qinghua pleads, giving in and shaking Mobei Jun urgently. He can apologize for his presumptuous actions later. Right now, Mobei Jun needs to get them out of here! They can come back another day when the main DPS isn’t in danger of passing out!
Mobei Jun passes out.
None of Shang Qinghua’s increasingly-louder efforts at rousing Mobei Jun work. He’s out cold. Completely out of it! Felled by a single attack! My king, aren’t you supposed to have plot armor against this kind of thing?
He casts a quick glance at the salamander to see it puffed up very large, the tendrils on its back a wavering yellow. He scrambles to place himself in front of Mobei Jun, his mind racing. Yellow...yellow…what was yellow?
It comes to him right as the salamander lets loose with a jetstream of pressurized water that carves a line through the rock wall next to him like a sizzling knife slicing through an ice cube!
Ahhh fuuuuck!!! If that hits him, it’ll punch a hole clean through him! Fuck, fuck, fuck!
The salamander dips its nose back into the cold spring, eyeing him balefully with pale pink eyes. It starts to swell as it takes in more water.
Reloading! It’s reloading!!
Shang Qinghua glances despairingly at Mobei Jun’s limp body, back at the salamander, and makes the very smart administrative decision to run in the other direction, shouting and waving his arms wildly.
The salamander tracks him, ignoring the sad, unconscious lump of Mobei Jun on the ground in favor of a moving target. Success!
And that’s where he is now! Acting as live bait. Having an extremely bad time!
Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu! You just had to open your big mouth, didn’t you, Cucumber-bro? This old man knows that this is all your fault! Come and take some fucking responsibility for this!
The salamander takes aim at him again. Shang Qinghua shifts his weight onto his toes and when the creature fires, he leaps upwards. The deadly jet of water misses him by a couple inches and he shouts in victory, dancing angrily as the salamander is forced to recharge once again.
Behind him, the cave wall makes a very threatening creak. Shang Qinghua whirls around, dread coiling in his stomach. This section of the wall must be thinner than it looks, because it’s starting to bow forward, groaning and buckling under the immense pressure of something huge behind it.
Ahhhh!!! Forget the salamander!
Shang Qinghua takes off at a dead run back to where Mobei Jun is lying. Even as he sprints, he can hear the monstrous crash of the wall giving way under a tremendous roar of flowing water!
He reaches Mobei Jun right as the flood catches up with him, sweeping them both up in a torrential whitewater current. Shang Qinghua clings onto Mobei Jun for dear life! He wraps his arms tight around his king’s chest, his legs around Mobei Jun’s waist, clutching him desperately with all four limbs like an octopus, both cheeks puffed up to hold his breath as the wild current buffets them, tumbling them about like laundry in a front-load dryer.
He hates this! He really hates this!! He's really tired of all this water-themed bullshit going on in his life lately!
The runaway current washes them across the entire length of the cave, joining up with one of the fast-moving underground rivers to sweep them further into the cave system. Shang Qinghua manages to struggle to the surface with Mobei Jun’s dead weight clenched tight between his legs, maneuvering them both upwards for a quick gasp of air.
Something brushes his face in the dark and he lets out a shriek of terror, slapping automatically at it to push it away! His fingers skim across wet fur and his screaming grows louder before he realizes it’s not...attached to anything? It’s - recognition strikes him. It’s his king’s animal pelt, sliding out of his robes because of the violent water current. With a yell, he lunges for it right as it slips out of his fingers, grabbing handfuls of the wet fur and hauling the pelt back to the safety of his body.
Fuck, that was close!! Mobei Jun would never forgive him if Shang Qinghua had let it slip away! Clutching Mobei Jun’s waist with his legs and the pelt with his arms, Shang Qinghua finds himself at an impasse. If he stuffs the pelt back into Mobei Jun’s robes, it might slip out once more, and with the darkness and the rough current, there’s no guarantee he can catch it again if that happens. The same risk is present if he puts it into his own robes, with the additional downside of it bunching up to create a very unappealing lump on him like a strange beer belly.
Thus, the only possible solution!
He gropes wildly for his qiankun pouch, fumbling it open and digging around inside it one-handed, pulling out handfuls of random paraphernalia to make room before stuffing the pelt hastily inside, looping and knotting the drawstrings tightly shut around his inner sash. There! Now it won’t be at risk of being swept away.
Not one second too soon! The moment Shang Qinghua has the pouch secured, he’s suddenly aware of something splashing frantically next to him in the dark. Glowing flashes of distressed, quickly-changing color marks it as the nine-colors spiritual salamander. Shang Qinghua spares one brain cell to think furious thoughts at it.
You! You did this! You did this to us!
The salamander, too caught up in the fast-moving and turbulent currents to swim away, simply struggles pathetically, lighting up the small area around them with frantic and desperate flashes of colored light.
“And how am I supposed to catch you now?” Shang Qinghua shouts at it, sticking a leg out to fend off a large rock that rises up from the dark to crush them. Feeling rather protective, he cups a hand over the back of Mobei Jun’s head. His king is totally defenseless here! Completely dependent upon Shang Qinghua to get them out of this terrible situation! The weight of all this responsibility is enough to sink him...
Wait, no sinking! No thoughts about sinking right now, only thoughts about how to escape! He punts them away from another set of rocks, wincing as a sharp edge cuts right through the sole of his shoe. No time to think about that! The salamander, sensing that Mobei Jun is some kind of island bulwark in the swift current, starts to splash closer, seeking safe haven.
“No!! Tch! Tst! Go away!” Shang Qinghua shouts, sticking his foot out in futile warning. The salamander has its pale eyes fixed on Mobei Jun’s weirdly-buoyant body and obviously means to try and clamber on, kicking Shang Qinghua off in the process!
In a last-ditch effort, Shang Qinghua starts throwing things at it. He’s still clutching a handful of random junk in one hand from his quickly-emptied qiankun pouch, including a soaked bag of melon seeds, a couple of slowly-dissolving inksticks, some kind of jade token that he doesn’t remember the function of, and a spirit-trapping pouch.
The salamander is about three feet away and closing fast when Shang Qinghua hurls the spirit-trapping pouch at it. To his absolute surprise, the spiritual salamander lets out a long, bell-like cry, and is promptly sucked into the pouch! The bag even rebounds back to him, landing squarely in his palm, shaking three times before lying still, exactly like a pokeball!
Shang Qinghua stares at the bag in open disbelief for a few seconds before pumping his fist with a loud shout of victory!
Cheap shots work! They really work!!
With no threat of being kicked off of Mobei Island, Shang Qinghua sends a little ball of spiritual energy into the air to light the way ahead of them and clings contentedly to Mobei Jun’s chest. This rapid current will eventually slow down as it meets a wider waterway, and he’ll be able to steer them to the riverbank in relative safety to wait for Mobei Jun to wake. No need to push the plot along! Simply cling tight and wait patiently, and all will be well.
He rolls the little jade emblem between his fingers as he scans the river ahead of them for looming rock formations. What does this thing do again? It’s an unassuming little palm-sized oval of mottled jade with a Mobei seal carved into the back surface, but that’s a rather ubiquitous feature among tokens from the northern palace. Experimentally, he feeds a little of his spiritual energy into the emblem, which glows shortly before - nothing happens.
Huh. Probably nothing important then.
He tucks it into the pocket of his inner robe and pillows his chin back onto Mobei Jun’s bountiful pecs, lazily keeping an eye out as the rapid current sweeps them along. If not for the threat of rocks in the water ahead and the annoying, growing roar of the river all around them, this could be considered rather scenic. A lazy river adventure, like they’re at a waterpark!
Wait a second.
Shang Qinghua sits bolt upright!! He raises a hand and brightens the glowing ball of spiritual energy to its maximum output, trying to see as far ahead as possible. Sure enough, in the near distance the river stops flowing forward, instead dropping steeply off into what is obviously an enormous waterfall!
Ahhhhh!!!! Fuck!! What lazy river? What peaceful riverside escapade?! Is he muddled in the brain or something?!
He starts to paddle wildly towards the edge of the river, but the current is moving too quickly for him to make any headway. He tries to pull out his sword, but Mobei Jun’s dead weight and the fast-moving water are a bad combination, and in the span of several seconds he fumbles his sword, cuts his hand grabbing for it, and nearly gets swept away from Mobei Jun! Well, his initial plan of hauling them both onto his sword is definitely not going to work. He might be able to get onto his sword by himself and catch Mobei Jun in midair when he goes over the edge, but is that really worth the risk? Ah, what to do, what to do?!
In all emergencies, there is always an answer!
“My king!” he shouts, alternately slapping Mobei Jun’s chest and shaking him urgently as the current brings them ever closer to the waterfall. “My king, please wake up! You need to get us out of here!”
Mobei Jun’s eyelashes flutter sluggishly before going still again. Shit, he’s really out of it...Shang Qinghua despairs slightly. Psyching himself up and begging forgiveness in advance, he draws his arm back and does the unthinkable.
He slaps Mobei Jun sharply across one perfect cheek!
Mobei Jun startles awake, but his face remains slack, his eyes glazed and unseeing, the pupils dilated wide. Shang Qinghua takes his king’s beautiful face in his hands and squeezes his cheeks desperately, trying to hold his attention.
“My king, please! Waterfall! There’s a waterfall! You have to make a portal back to the palace!”
Mobei Jun blinks lethargically at him, uncomprehending. Shang Qinghua, despairing, wonders if he’ll have to slap that beautiful face again. Even once was enough to make his heart quake and his knees tremble. Doing it again would be an insult against the heavens, an offense too great to be forgiven!
To his despair, Mobei Jun’s eyes slide shut as he succumbs to the salamander-induced sleep. Shang Qinghua looks heavenwards in anguish! Surrendering his life as collateral, he cringes and raises his hand to slap Mobei Jun again - once, twice, thrice in quick succession!
All that sacrifice for nothing!
No amount of slapping rouses Mobei Jun, and each slap only deepens the slightly-ruddy handprint on his king’s perfect face, adding to the growing pile of sins already weighing heavy on Shang Qinghua’s guilty shoulders!
“My king!!” he wails, clutching Mobei Jun’s face remorsefully, completely overcome with guilt.
He’s just managed to get his sword out again, gearing himself up to leap up onto it and pace Mobei Jun until he goes over the edge of the waterfall to catch him when a sudden crash of realization strikes him.
That white jade token! He knows what it does!
It’s a direct transport back to the northern palace, given to him for emergencies after he’d burned up his single-use talisman escaping from Cang Qiong in the wake of his betrayal!
He hurriedly sheaths his sword, fumbling to withdraw the jade emblem from his inner robes, nearly dropping it into the water in his haste! This close, the immense roar of the waterfall is nearly overwhelming, and the misty spray cast into the air by the thundering water condenses to slide in slow drops down his face like nervous sweat. Really not helping the terrible urgency of the situation!
He looks at the jade token, looks at the hundred yards left between them and the drop, and squeezes his eyes shut. He’s never used this token before. He doesn’t know if it will even work after all this time, or if it’s capable of transporting two people. He doesn’t know a lot of things. But Mobei Jun continues to lie heavy and unconscious between his tightly-clenched legs, completely at the mercy of Shang Qinghua’s actions. His king is counting on him! Just this once, please let the narrative work in his favor.
He clenches the white jade token tightly in one hand and starts to pour as much spiritual energy as he can spare into it, murmuring the activation sequence for the array that will take them back to the northern palace. The unrelenting current carries them swiftly and mercilessly toward the edge as the Mobei seal begins to glow between his fingers, a brilliant white light unfolding outwards from the unassuming jade into the complicated shape of a long-distance array. Shang Qinghua closes his eyes and holds Mobei Jun a little tighter as he shouts the last few words to the sequence right as gravity slides out from underneath them and they slip, weightless, over the edge of the waterfall.
They reappear in midair directly above Mobei Jun’s bed.
Shang Qinghua shrieks as they crash into the mattress in a great flood of flailing limbs and coldspring water. The bed collapses under the strain of their arrival, folding in on itself with a great crack of splintering wood, catapulting Shang Qinghua off of Mobei Jun’s body and sending him rolling like a cannonball into the corner of the room. He wants to scream and shout with success even as he pops upright, hurrying back to make sure that Mobei Jun is okay.
Close!! That was way too close!
Mobei Jun is still completely passed out, lying facedown on the bed, slumped over the cracked bedframe in a highly undignified manner. Shang Qinghua rolls him over with great effort, rearranging his king’s limbs so that he looks a bit more ‘artfully disheveled sleeping beauty’ and not ‘fallen down disgracefully in the street’ before fumbling with Mobei Jun’s belt for the token used to call the household staff.
He summons the head healer and head of household affairs before scrambling to sit at Mobei Jun's head, cupping a careful hand over his king's nose to check that he's still breathing. Mobei Jun's eyes flutter heavily, deep and drugged. He lets out a low groan, his head flopping into Shang Qinghua's lap.
Shang Qinghua hastily starts to pat him, running a hand reassuringly over Mobei Jun's damp forehead and up along the crown of his head, smoothing the wet hair away from his face and rubbing guiltily at his slightly-flushed cheek.
"It's okay, it’s okay, my king!" he babbles reassuringly. "It's fine now, we're home."
Mobei Jun sleeps like the dead for a solid two and a half days.
As a rightfully paranoid and inherently distrustful demon king, it quickly becomes clear that he had made contingency plans for this very situation. Shang Qinghua has to accompany anyone who goes in and out of Mobei Jun’s bedchambers, feeding his spiritual energy into the watchful array that guards his king’s slumber until the visitor(s) leave the room, a cautionary measure to make sure nobody attempts anything sinister while Mobei Jun is unconscious and unable to guard himself.
Why Mobei Jun entrusted Shang Qinghua with this extremely important duty is highly questionable. Surely there are better candidates for this, my king? Also, this is kind of overkill, isn’t it?!
Apparently, if Shang Qinghua stops feeding the seal or accidentally takes his hand away while distracted, the ‘intruders’ will be aggressively swallowed by the array, turned into eerie ice sculptures that no one knows how to defrost! Haha, it’s fine though, only a few people were accidentally eaten! He's sure there won't be any lasting damages, just a little minor/major frostbite once Mobei Jun wakes up and thaws them out! It’s totally fine! Shang Qinghua definitely pays attention to his hands now and does not remove them from the seal until everyone is completely out of the room!
And then, as if the incredibly daunting guardian array that eats people wasn’t enough, there was also the issue of only one bed.
What?! He’s not going to abandon Mobei Jun in his hour of need! His king is completely defenseless here! What if something actually manages to make it through the guardian array? There has to be someone here to guard him until he’s awake.
So, one bed. A very big bed! Freshly replaced, with a brand new bedframe and mattress and sheets and cushions and everything! But only one bed.
The sheer disrespect of attempting to huddle in the royal bed next to Mobei Jun’s unconscious body had brought up very stressful memories of their first meeting. Shang Qinghua had not wanted to risk a repeat of that night, kicked to the ground like a dog upon Mobei Jun’s awakening! Thus, he had immediately relocated to the antechamber before the bedroom, curling into a ball on the fancy couch with a few stolen furs to drape over himself.
The overwhelming cold of the outer rooms had driven him, teeth chattering, back into Mobei Jun’s bedchambers, where the proximity of his king’s familiar spiritual energy and the incongruous wealth of furs and blankets was enough to ward away the chill. Even so, attempting to sleep with Mobei Jun lying as still as a corpse next to him had been uh...disconcerting to say the least. He’d been so freaked out the first night that he kept waking up in cold sweats at regular two-hour intervals to make sure his king was still breathing!
All in all, an extremely harrowing few days!
It’s the morning of the third day when Mobei Jun stirs fully awake. His consciousness is still fitful, but he’s lucid and in a foul temper in the precious minutes that he’s fully alert. Shang Qinghua gave him a very condensed report of what happened after he’d passed out in the coldspring caves and Mobei Jun had slipped back asleep directly after - a true sleep, light and vigilant, with a sense of impending doom if disturbed.
Seemingly satisfied with that, the watchful guardian array finally disengages its extermination mode, allowing Shang Qinghua the freedom to move back to his own room. He’s absolutely, crushingly exhausted by the time he trudges back to his quarters, collapsing facedown into his bed and marinating in the luxury of lying on his own blankets and cushions.
Mobei Jun is safe, his health confirmed by the head healer, the guardian array now rightfully tuned back to his king’s consciousness instead of Shang Qinghua’s presence. Shang Qinghua closes his eyes.
It’s this old man’s turn to sleep for two and a half days now!
Shang Qinghua doesn’t sleep for two and a half days, but he sure wishes he could!
Upon waking up refreshed the next morning, he’s immediately presented with all the paperwork he wasn’t able to finish during his time as Mobei Jun’s specialized bouncer. He spends most of that day traveling between his room and the library, researching things for various upcoming diplomatic visits and finishing up the various inventory and requisition requests that have piled up during his stolen three-day reprieve.
He hasn’t had time to give the full report on what happened with the spiritual salamander yet, but that’s fine. He hasn’t even seen Mobei Jun yet today! His king is probably also suffering from the same deluge of overdue bureaucracy demanding his attention, and he’ll call Shang Qinghua for the report when he’s ready.
He’s just thinking that when a small movement in his peripheral vision catches his eye, and he turns to see Mobei Jun materialize in his living area in a dramatic swirl of shadow.
What good timing!
“My king!” he cries, springing upright and running to him. “This servant has -” He doesn’t get the chance to say anything else as Mobei Jun grabs him by the collar, hauling him into the air and shoving him into the nearest wall!
“What have you done?” he demands, eyes wild, looking disheveled and enraged. “What did you - how dare you - where -” he dissolves into enraged snarling, his eyes glowing a bright and vengeful blue. The temperature is dropping rapidly and Shang Qinghua's breath plumes in the biting air as dark frost begins to crawl up the walls.
“My king!” Shang Qinghua chokes, shivering and clutching at Mobei Jun’s relentless fist. “I - I don't know what you're talking about -”
Mobei Jun snarls, low and vicious. He draws his other hand back, palm flat, fingers spread wide.
Ah…so Mobei Jun is reinstating the 'hitting your servant for sport and entertainment' policy that he had so graciously suspended? Well, that’s - that’s fine. It’s not like Shang Qinghua had hoped that things would change between them. He hadn’t hoped for that at all! This development is fine. Expected, even!
His body has been lulled into complacency by the year of comfortable, bruise-free security enjoyed at his king’s side though. It has to relearn how to properly fear Mobei Jun’s presence again, but upon seeing that upraised arm, decades of deeply-ingrained instinct rise once again to the surface, and Shang Qinghua flinches hard enough that his elbow runs directly into the wall behind him. He has to immediately fight the urge to yodel with pain, tears springing helplessly into his eyes as spangling pain radiates out from his funnybone!
Mobei Jun, still holding him aloft, seems to stall for a second, his face frozen in an expression of dark and vicious rage. His hand clenches into a tight fist, trembling slightly as if he's gathering steam for a particularly nasty punch. Shang Qinghua cringes, closing his eyes and waiting for the heavy blow to fall.
Well, my king? Don’t draw it out like this!
Instead of beating him up though, Mobei Jun backs away, dropping Shang Qinghua to the ground like a discarded corpse. Silent and seething, his face full of frustrated anger, he steps back into one of his portals, disappearing without a single word.
Shang Qinghua pulls himself together and glances fearfully around his empty room, but Mobei Jun is really gone. Gone without a trace, and more importantly, without a single explanation for that sudden fit of temper! Sighing and shaking his head, he takes a second to rub at his bruised throat and his slightly-bruised ego before getting to his feet to begin the arduous process of chipping the dark ice off the walls of his room before it can melt all over his things.
Really, my king! If you’re going to barge into this humble servant’s room and beat on him a little, the least you could do is say why?
It’s been three days.
Mobei Jun is still avoiding him.
Not only is he actively avoiding Shang Qinghua, he's being particularly nasty about it too! Why do you keep giving this poor servant such wrathful looks? Refusing to talk to him? Openly giving him the cold shoulder! My king, why?!
Shang Qinghua goes through his daily duties in confused and slightly lonely dejection, still unsure what crimes he’s committed. Was it because Mobei Jun realized that Shang Qinghua saw his defeat in the spiritual caves? Is Mobei Jun angry at him for being the lone witness to the pitiful spectacle of him fallen down on the floor, shamefully passed out after a direct OHKO from their opponent?
Sure, in hindsight, it’s sort of hilarious that Mobei Jun got owned so hard by what should’ve been by all rights a simple and low-level miniboss! But he’d never hold that loss against his king! Shit happens to everyone, even someone as blessed by the narrative as Mobei Jun is. This servant’s lips are sealed, my king, please rest assured that your secret is safe!
He’s munching mournfully away on his midday kilo of melon seeds when he suddenly has a horrible thought that makes all the hair on his arms rise up in fright, goosebumps running through the entire length of his body!
Is it possible that Mobei Jun remembers Shang Qinghua slapping him across the face?
Surely it can’t be...the thought is too terrible to entertain! Mobei Jun was passed out cold, barely able to open his eyes on command. His king’s level of restraint is notoriously poor...nonexistent even! If he recalled Shang Qinghua laying hands on the pale and lovely skin of his face, forget about being passive-aggressive! This master would be down one hand and banished into the northern wilds to be hunted for sport!
Another chill wracks his body, and he shivers in preemptive dread, clutching the bag of melon seeds tightly to his chest. Maybe it’s better not to question Mobei Jun’s foul mood at all. Whatever it’s about, he’ll get over it eventually! Mobei Jun has never had the best temper. Best to let him work it off before seeking his company again. Feeling slightly heartened, he uncurls and polishes off the rest of the bag in good humor.
Snack break over, he trots back to his room and sits down to the spread of half-finished paperwork on his writing desk with a sigh. The minister of finance is still waiting on Shang Qinghua’s official sign-off for some adjustments he wants to make to increase production quotas on their more lucrative mining sites. He’s sort of an idiot though and the changes he recommended straight up suck! Shang Qinghua has been making ruthless edits to his proposal all morning. Time to continue the flaying!
He reaches for his brush and inkstone, only to realize that they’ve been taken away, clean replacements sitting accusingly in their old spots.
...Okay, so maybe he leaves his brushes sitting out until the ink dries solid into the bristles, rendering the brushes basically impossible to use. Maybe the servants have complained about all the dried and clotted ink left on his inkstones. Maybe the head of household has actively lectured him before about this particular bad habit, but he forgot just this once, okay!
He sighs and looks around on his desk for an inkstick. Of course, there isn’t one! There aren’t any servants around either, so he can’t bribe someone into getting one for him. He thinks about making the long trek to the storeroom just to grab one and groans aloud, slouching where he sits. Why is life so hard!
Grumpily, he fishes out his qiankun pouch, undoing the tightly-knotted drawstrings with several muttered complaints. He keeps all sorts of odds and ends in here, including extra writing supplies for when inspiration strikes. He’s sure there’s an inkstick or two rattling about inside. He finally gets the drawstrings free and upends the bag onto his lap with a few aggressive shakes.
What falls out of the pouch is a dark grey sealskin.
Shang Qinghua's face goes completely white with shock!
Oh shit. Oh shit! He absolutely forgot that he had this on him! This is bad. Really bad! My king, please forgive this miserable servant, it completely slipped his mind! To be fair, it was a very stressful situation, followed by an incredibly stressful few days!
Shang Qinghua grabs the pelt, inkstick forgotten, and takes off for Mobei Jun's study at a sprint.
“My king!” he cries, bursting into the room without knocking and startling Mobei Jun and the minister of finance. Mobei Jun takes one look and dismisses the other demon immediately, ushering Shang Qinghua into the inner room and sealing the door behind them.
“Apologies for interrupting, my king, but this servant needed to return this to you.” Shang Qinghua says, breathless, brandishing the sealskin before him like it's the only thing standing between him and a sound beating. “This pathetic servant completely forgot he had it!” He bows deeply, holding the pelt out to Mobei Jun on outstretched arms. “Begging my king's forgiveness!”
Mobei Jun looks at the offered sealskin, then back at Shang Qinghua. His stare is very uh…very intense? Well, his king’s cold and imperious gaze is always intense, but right now the intimidation factor is really something terrifying! That fierce and icy glare is so full of concentrated malice that it sort of makes Shang Qinghua feel like his skin is being stripped from his bones! He cringes and ducks his head so he won’t have to face it head-on. Undeterred, Mobei Jun continues to stare, his displeasure thick and heavy in the air between him.
"Is this your idea of a joke?" Mobei Jun finally asks, his voice low and very deadly. "You dare present this to me? Did you have second thoughts? Cold feet?"
Shang Qinghua starts to sweat, his mind racing. Oh god, there's no reason for Mobei Jun to be this angry unless he remembers the slap(s)! He should be happy that Shang Qinghua is returning his magical animal skin! But instead, Shang Qinghua can practically hear Mobei Jun grinding his teeth in fury. His king knows, doesn't he? Ah, he's dead...he's really dead! Heaven never forgets! The great wheel of karma crushes all in the end!
Unable to bear the tense and awful atmosphere, he caves like a wet cardboard box, confessing his crimes with great enthusiasm, more than ready to beg for forgiveness!
"I'm sorry!!" he wails, falling to his knees. "My king, please forgive me! I didn't mean to slap you so many times, but I had to! And you still didn’t wake up so it was all for nothing! And I'm sorry I hugged onto you like a sloth, and -"
Mobei Jun's face goes through several interesting expressions. "You did what? " he demands, incredulous.
Shang Qinghua freezes on the spot, fear crystallizing his blood. Mobei Jun didn't remember?! Ah...he’s signed his own death warrant...
"I - I -" he stammers, the blood draining from his face, turning him as pale as a ghost.
"We will discuss that later," Mobei Jun says darkly. "But this…" He reaches out, his outspread fingers hovering over the pelt but not quite touching it. "You took it. Why would you return it to me now?"
Execution stayed, Shang Qinghua blinks away his dramatic tears. "I didn't take it!" he protests. "It fell out of your robes when we were escaping and I stuffed it into my qiankun pouch so it wouldn't get swept away. It's yours, my king! Why would I take it?" he asks, bewildered.
Mobei Jun fixes him with a slightly disbelieving look. "Do you know what you’re holding?"
"Um. Yes? It's your -" he makes a vague wiggly gesture, indicating the magical animal transformation. "Your uh... your skin. I mean, not your skin skin? Ugh, that sounded weird. It's your fur? No, that sounds weird too -"
Mobei Jun’s eyes are very clear. “Shang Qinghua. Do you know what I am.”
“No. A selkie.”
Shang Qinghua stares at him, brow furrowed, half-forgotten memories of rapid fire searches on baidu for ‘coolest shapeshifting legends from around the world’ emerging one after another like annoying pop-up ads.
So that’s why he’s a seal!
Mobei Jun is still watching him, his gaze sharp, then condemning as he sees recognition move across Shang Qinghua's face. His eyes drop to the sealskin in Shang Qinghua’s hands. "You know of it, then. And still, you would return it?"
"Yes...?" Shang Qinghua says, truly confused now. He frets as he tries to recall what was actually on the pages he'd skimmed. Something about stealing skins and returning to the sea? Fuck if he remembers! Of all the shapeshifting myths for Mobei Jun to get, why is it something that he barely researched?
More importantly, this servant isn't stealing anything! This is Mobei Jun’s precious key item! It’s probably worth its weight in gold, and Shang Qinghua kept it stuffed disgracefully in his qiankun pouch, rolling around with loose papers and ink-stiff brushes and a growing collection of pocket lint for days, like a villain hoarding the heroine’s magical weapon so she can’t transform. Mobei Jun should be elated to see it, snatching it right out of his hands, so why isn’t he taking it back? Why would Shang Qinghua keep it? He's not the one capable of transforming! My king, please take your key item back! This servant doesn’t want to be responsible for it!
He holds the sealskin out in mute appeal. Mobei Jun does not move to take it. He stares at it, silent, his expression unreadable, before looking once again at Shang Qinghua.
Shang Qinghua wants to weep! What’s with this tense atmosphere!
"I can clean it!" he bursts out miserably. "My qiankun pouch isn't that dirty, but maybe there's a little bit of lint, or ink, or dust, or - er, regardless, all easily washed out, my king! Not a problem!"
That seems to spur Mobei Jun into action because he scowls viciously and moves forward to take his precious pelt. As he draws the sealskin out of Shang Qinghua’s hands, his movements are slow and almost…hesitant? Oddly disbelieving as it slips free of Shang Qinghua's fingers.
He looks at the soft fur with an intense, indiscernible expression, before closing his eyes and holding it to his chest for a long moment. The open vulnerability that bleeds onto his face makes Shang Qinghua's mouth go completely dry. He looks down, gulping and feeling hot about the ears, with the sensation that this is something he really shouldn't be witnessing!
When he dares to look back up, Mobei Jun is tucking the pelt back into his robes, businesslike, his face calm and expressionless, every trace of frailty gone. He catches Shang Qinghua's gaze with enough force that it feels like a blow. Shang Qinghua hastily bows and salutes, desperate to make his excuses and escape this weird mood!
"Er, my king, if that's all then this humble servant will be taking his leave - "
"What did you say about a slap?" Mobei Jun inquires coolly, taking a seat across from him. He crosses his legs and rests one hand against his cheek - the very same cheek that Shang Qinghua's guilty hand had reddened in the cold spring caves!
Shang Qinghua blanches, his soul attempting to leave his body. Ah, here it comes, the sweet, icy embrace of imminent death.
Goodbye, cruel world!