The long, sharpened nails of Emperor Luo's right hand tapped against the blackened metal armrest of his throne.
Mobei-jun waited, silent. He had finished his reports and his Lord appeared to have long ceased paying him any attention, lounging in his seat and gazing off into the empty reaches of his grand hall with his chin resting upon his free hand, but Mobei-jun had not yet been dismissed, so there was more to come. He was obedient. He did not move.
Tap, went the nails. Tap, tap, followed by a slow, lingering scratch of the middle nail down the metal. The sound produced was a thin, grating squeal, in a pitch high enough it shivered down Mobei-jun's spine like the prick of a hundred tiny needles.
His Lord heaved a bored sigh and raised his head.
“Is that all?”
"Yes, my Lord."
"Very well. Withdraw your army," he ordered, fixing his deep black eyes on Mobei-jun once more. "With the uprising subdued, keeping too many of our men around the town for too long will only serve to raise tensions."
"As you command."
He needn't ask – the answer was obvious – but his Lord was watching him expectantly, so Mobei-jun dutifully said; "But, my Lord, without any soldiers, how will we ensure the peace is maintained?"
The answer was fear.
Mobei-jun's job had been to oversee the course of the battle, but he had not set foot on the battlefield himself. He was Great Lord Luo Binghe's most formidable General; the rebels were merely a small, pitiful human cultivation sect who had never adjusted well to the merging of the realms. His presence would only have lent legitimacy to their hopeless cause. It would have seemed like an acknowledgement that they were a true threat to Emperor Luo's power, instead of what they were: a nuisance, at best.
The Emperor's retribution was swift and brutal. He had called the uprising 'subdued' - but was subdued the right word, when there was nothing left of it but blood and bone to feed the soil?
A question of semantics. Maybe Shang Qinghua would know.
Mobei-jun's soldiers had been given leave to be as destructive as they wished. After the display the battle left behind – and it was more a massacre than a battle – no one but a fool would risk drawing the Emperor's ire again.
Emperor Luo did not treat his common subjects poorly. Provided they lived quietly and obediently, and did not attempt to step outside their bounds, they had little reason to worry. Emperor Luo did not impose unreasonable laws or demand harsh taxes. When he wasn't distracted by his own pursuits he took interest in the smallfolks' need for food and medicines. He was even generous enough to allow cultivation sects to continue to exist, as long as they they bowed down before him.
But he made no secret of the strength and reach of his power.
Both kindness and injury he repaid a thousand-fold; that was the ethos by which he ruled. For him, it was an effective strategy.
The other half of his strategy was...
Emperor Luo smiled quickly, the points of his sharp teeth polished and shining. His right hand dipped down from the armrest, fingers drifting as though without thought over the pommel of Xin Mo, resting against the side of the throne.
Mobei-jun was glad the sword was resting. He did not like being near it when it hungered.
Tap, went his Lord's nails against its grip. "I will pay them a visit, of course," he drawled. "It is good for my subjects to know their Emperor cares about them, that he has sympathy for their situation. We wouldn't want any more misunderstandings to arise, would we?"
"No, my Lord."
Luo Binghe's fingers caressed the length of the unadorned hilt, a curl up, a graceful sweep down. Mobei-jun wondered if it was purposeful, if it was an action calculated, as so many of his Lord's ways were, to prompt a particular response from him – or if it was unconscious, and his Lord did not realise he was doing it at all.
"I have also heard that the Village Head has a daughter,” Emperor Luo continued. “A talented woman, purportedly of some beauty." His thumb slowly circled the pommel, and he smirked, his black eyes glittering in some sourceless light. "Such a shame, for a radiant young lady to be stifled. To be stuck in a small, insignificant place with so few prospects. Perhaps I will pay her a personal visit. Offer her the opportunity to experience more in life.” His grin widened. “She would be honoured, don't you think?"
He raised an elegant brow.
Mobei-jun remained silent.
His Lord shook his head and laughed at him. "But of course, you don't understand such things, do you, Mobei? Nevermind, you don't have to answer."
His fingers closed loosely around the grip of Xin Mo. The sword quivered.
"And how fares your husband, these days?”
Mobei-jun blinked. A heavy, numbing weight gripped him by the lungs and sank down through his core.
"Fine," he blurted.
Lord Luo raised both brows this time.
"...It is the Blood Moon Ice Festival soon. He is very busy."
"Hm. I see."
His Lord eyed him a moment, his impassive, handsome face giving away nothing, before he finally turned away. His hand parted from Xin Mo, and he dismissed Mobei-jun with a desultory flick of his wrist.
"That's all I needed from you. You may go.”
Mobei-jun hid the escape of his breath in a low bow.
Mobei-jun swiftly relayed his Lord's orders to his men and returned straight home. To his palace, the very heart of his kingdom, the ancient stronghold of his family's power, his power; to his private rooms, where to the best of his knowledge Luo Binghe had never set foot; where his husband was, safe, absorbed in his writing, waiting for him.
He greeted his husband quietly and went to stand by the window. As he gazed out at the ice garden he circulated his qi, testing the flow of it through his meridians, weighing its strength.
His claws tapped against the sculpted ice wall.
Tap, tap. His Lord's nails tapping his throne, the scratching drag of them against the metal, a long, thin, piercing sound, the spine-shivering screeching grind of one sword blade raised against another. Ice scraping against bone.
For a moment he was revisted by the ghosts of old wounds. His first loss, decades old, from Luo Binghe's first flush of conquering. When he had left Mobei-jun broken and bleeding on the floor of his family's own throne room.
If he had won back then, would things be different? ...Probably not.
A log snapped in the fireplace behind him.
Mobei-jun's ears flicked back toward it. He shook the ghosts away and refocused on the here and now. The crackle of flames, the sweeping whisper of his husband's brush against the paper. The fragrant scent of woodsmoke and the sour tang of ink danced in the fresh crisp air of the ever-present cold.
The brush paused.
"Is everything okay?" Shang Qinghua asked. "You're being very quiet. Quieter than usual, I mean."
"Bad news from the capital?"
"No." He reconsidered. "...Mn. Perhaps."
There was a rustle of paper behind him, a quiet swish of water, a gentle tap of wood against ceramic. Six light footsteps, and a small, warm hand landed between his shoulder blades.
"You don't know if there was bad news? Or there was news, but you don't know yet if it's good or bad? Wait, do those mean the same thing..."
Mobei-jun looked down at him. At the round, brown eyes, the warmest things in Mobei-jun's kingdom. The expressive face, the equally talkative hands. He must have been writing for a while; strands of his dark hair were falling loose from his crown, and he had acquired a red mark upon his cheek where he had leaned it on his hand. A few tiny flecks of ink graced the skin at the corner of his soft pink mouth.
Shang Qinghua was a busy man. He worked hard. It wouldn't do to worry him. Especially when nothing had actually happened.
"It's nothing," he said.
Those round eyes narrowed.
"Right. Because you get so distracted about 'nothing'." Shang Qinghua tugged at the cuff of Mobei-jun's sleeve. There was ink on his fingertips, too. His voice edged into a whine. "You haven't even given me a kiss hello, yet."
"You were writing," Mobei-jun defended himself.
Shang Qinghua rolled his eyes. "Okay, let's get this straight.” He flapped his hands between them, poked Mobei-jun in the chest. “You can absolutely disturb me if it's for a kiss. Especially if I haven't seen you in ages!"
"It's been three days."
"Exactly! Three days in which I haven't seen a glimpse of my husband! And then when he finally comes home he ignores me to glare out the window instead, so cruel--"
Mobei-jun snorted. He wrapped his arms around Shang Qinghua's waist and dragged his ridiculous little human into a kiss.
Shang Qinghua lifted up on his toes to press in closer, moaning as Mobei-jun slipped his tongue between his lips. Mobei-jun let out a low, answering hum. Years they had been married, years of kisses such as this, years of holding Shang Qinghua's delicious warmth close. The perfect amount of heat.
Once, long ago, he had wondered if he would ever tire of it.
He was young and ignorant. He knew nothing.
Shang Qinghua broke the kiss with a few short pecks to his mouth and sighed in satisfaction. "That's better. Now come, tell this husband what's bothering you, yes?"
Mobei-jun growled. "Lord Luo--"
He trapped the words behind his teeth and glanced out of the window. Mobei-jun's rooms were at the end of a private hallway; both the hallway and the garden outside were accessible only to him and his consort. When Mobei-jun reached out with his senses there were no qi signatures nearby save his own and Shang Qinghua's. There was no one listening in on them from the hall. Nothing lurking outside, hidden in the icy wind and snow.
Even if there were, their rooms were encased in silencing talismans. Shang Qinghua had installed them himself, embarrassed at others hearing how loud he cried out when Mobei-jun pleasured him, but over the years they had proved useful in other ways too. No one could hear them.
Still. Caution was an armour he had been wearing since he was a child.
He bent his head down toward Shang Qinghua's, lips grazing the edge of his rounded ear like a lover speaking sweet words, and lowered his voice to a murmur.
"The Lord. He asked after you, again."
Shang Qinghua stilled. "Again?"
"He did so last week, too."
Shang Qinghua's thin brow furrowed. "I honestly thought he might have totally forgotten who I am."
"He has not."
"Ah. No. Apparently not.”
Their eyes met.
Luo Binghe had never respected his erstwhile Shishu, beyond a vague acknowledgement of his usefulness. And he had never bothered with false pleasantries or politeness when dealing with Mobei-jun. That his thoughts had strayed, unprompted, to Shang Qinghua--
Mobei-jun feared what it might mean.
His Lord went through obsessions; Mobei-jun knew that from experience. Women, frequently. A good challenge or a mystery. The rare enemy to vanquish who was strong enough to hold his attention. Sometimes the women and the enemies were one and the same. He became bored easily, and when he was bored he played games to entertain himself. Games that could have poor consequences for those on whom he'd set his sights.
Had Mobei-jun recently given him any reason to be angered? Anything, any slight excuse Luo Binghe might use to find him deserving of punishment?
Shang Qinghua scraped his plump lower lip between his teeth.
"W-well, that... that doesn't have to mean anything, does it?" His fingers twisted Mobei-jun's cuff, warping the silk in their anxious grip. "I mean, if it's only been twice... Two times is just a coincidence. It's three times that makes a pattern. Right?”
“Hm.” Mobei-jun frowned. He did not know if they could afford to risk there being a third time. A third time might already be too late. “He might forget,” he said, doubtful. “He's going to chase another woman for his harem. That should occupy him for a while."
“Oh? Which one? Ah, if it was the fight with the Shi Cao sect, it must be the daughter of Cao village's leader, right?” Shang Qinghua's lips pursed as he muttered to himself. “What was her name, Lin Wu? No, she was the one with the sleeping spell... Long Wu? Song Wu? Something Wu, I'm sure...”
Even at his strongest, Mobei-jun would not be able to defeat Luo Binghe. With Xin Mo in his hands Luo Binghe was nigh unstoppable. His innate power was immense, martial skill undeniable, the tides of fortune keen to turn in his favour – it was as though some higher force had singled him out for greatness.
What would he do, if Luo Binghe decided he wanted Shang Qinghua dead? The last living lord of Cang Qiong? It was only reward for Mobei-jun's loyalty that kept Shang Qinghua alive – that, and a leash to keep him in line. To keep him loyal.
Would he force Mobei-jun to commit the act? In his Hall, before the Emperor and all his court? Or would his Lord choose to make the killing strike himself, with Mobei-jun restrained and made to watch, helpless to stop it?
Mobei-jun would give his life if necessary, but without him as a shield, who would keep Shang Qinghua safe? His husband was resourceful, clever, adept at navigating the twisting circumstances of this world, but he was not physically strong. He was not the fastest nor the most skilled fighter, and his cultivation wasn't the highest. All he would have to rely on would be his tricks.
If the order ever came, there would be nowhere they could run. Nowhere they could hide. This merged world had been forged by Luo Binghe; it belonged to him. No place existed within it where he could not hunt them down.
Warm, pen-calloused hands tapped his cheek. “What's with that scary face? You're getting my clothes all frosty. Whatever you're thinking, stop it. Nothing's happened yet. And nothing will happen. Probably. Even if it does – ah, well, let's not think about that now. My king really needn't worry so much, I promise.”
Mobei-jun narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean.”
“Hm? You're going to have to be more specific.”
“You're hiding something. Speak.”
Shang Qinghua huffed a laugh. “Husband has gotten much better at reading me,” he muttered. His forehead wrinkled. “My king, please don't take what I'm about to tell you the wrong way. I hope you can understand why I haven't spoken about it before.”
He was worried? Of Mobei-jun's reaction? Why?
“Spoken of what?”
“It – Well. It's a delicate matter, you see–”
Shang Qinghua bit his lip, inhaled a breath and spoke in a quiet rush. “I may have been devising some, um, methods. Of dealing with Luo Binghe.”
Mobei-jun stared down at him.
“Just – just some small measures, you know.” Shang Qinghua babbled. “And I wasn't intending to actually use any of it – I don't know for sure if any of it would even work against him! But, you know, just in case it becomes necessary--”
Mobei-jun gripped his upper arms to steady him. “Measures. What sort?"
Shang Qinghua eyed him, that shrewd, clever mind working hard behind his soft brown eyes.
“...I'm not going to tell you.”
“No, I'm not.” Shang Qinghua pried his hands from his arms and took them between his own. “I'm not trying to shut you out, I promise,” he said earnestly. “You know how much I trust you. But it's safer this way; the less you know, the less Luo Binghe can possibly find out and use against you. If it ever does become necessary, then... then, I'll tell you everything. But until then, just be assured that I have plans in place. Okay?”
He stroked his thumb over Mobei-jun's knuckles, eyes sparking with that fierceness that sometimes kindled in him, that stoked an answering heat in Mobei-jun's heart.
“Anyway, I don't intend on getting myself killed any time soon. I've worked too damn hard to get here, I'm not about to let anyone take away what we have. Not even a super scary, way OP protagonist. And what about you, hm? Everyone would look at you, the second most powerful demon in the world, handsomeness rivalling the gods, now a poor, grieving widower – how could they resist such a prospect? You'd be swarmed by suitors, thousands of them, all vying to be the one to comfort you in your time of loss.” He grimaced, sticking out his pink tongue. “Blegh! Can you imagine? There's no way I could abandon you to a fate like that, you'd hate every second of it!”
“If you died none of that would matter,” Mobei-jun grumbled. His hands clenched into the layers of fine fabric around Shang Qinghua's waist. “I don't like this subject.”
“Then let's not think of it any more. Come sit with me. Shall I put out the fire?”
“It was built for you. Leave it.”
“It's not too hot?”
Mobei-jun looked down at him and scoffed.
"You're fine, yes, of course. Silly question. My king is far too strong and tough to be bothered by such trivial things.”
Mobei-jun nudged Shang Qinghua's chin up with the backs of his fingers.
"I made a vow. I will protect you."
Shang Qinghua's expression softened with tenderness. "I know." He reached up and cupped Mobei-jun's face between his palms. “And I made vows too, my king. Mobei-jun. My husband.” He petted his cheekbones. “Please rely on me.”
Mobei-jun bent down toward him until their foreheads touched, the mark of Mobei-jun's heritage pressing against the spot where he had touched his blood to Shang Qinghua's skin, claiming him, all those years ago.
He let Shang Qinghua take his weight in his palms, and closed his eyes.