Another hour went by until the beauty finally opened his eyes. The whole time, Hou Dong hadn’t let him out of his arms and had kept his gaze trained on his face. When the beauty’s eyelids fluttered, his heart sped up and he couldn’t help but hold his breath, eagerly anticipating what he would see.
Finally, a pair of eyes was uncovered that wasn’t as dark as Hou Dong had expected. Instead, it was of a warm brown, an earthen tone that made his heart settle down and feel warm. He hummed and brushed the beauty’s black hair back as if they were familiar with each other.
The youth blinked in confusion, his gaze brushing Hou Dong’s face. He didn’t know what to think and could only stare blankly at this stranger. After a moment, he looked away, taking in the palm tree that was shielding them from the merciless light of the sun and the pond next to them.
“Did he wake up yet, Master?” one of Hou Dong’s men called out.
Hou Dong didn’t answer and just continued to brush through the beauty’s hair. These guys, couldn’t they see that this was a special moment? Something like this shouldn’t be disturbed by outsiders. After all, the first impression was important.
“You —” The youth tried to speak but his voice sounded raspy.
Hou Dong didn’t even stop to think. He took a handful of water into his mouth and leaned down, pressing his lips onto that of the youth. The beauty’s eyes widened and he tried to push the man off him but didn’t succeed. Even under normal circumstances, somebody as thin as him would’ve been hard-pressed to throw off a muscled warrior like Hou Dong, even more so now that he had been wandering through the desert without a drop of water or food. His resistance didn’t even tickle Hou Dong.
Hou Dong leaned back when he had delivered the water to the youth’ mouth and even gave a small smile. “Better?”
Even though the youth wasn’t happy with the treatment, he still gulped down the water. Unfortunately, he also had to admit that his throat did indeed feel slightly better. He nodded his head but also tried to scramble out of Hou Dong’s arms.
Hou Dong wouldn’t have it. He pulled the beauty right back and even made sure to hug him tighter. “Oi, where do you want to go? Is this a way to thank your savior?”
The youth paused and his gaze returned to Hou Dong’s face. “You saved me?” His voice still sounded hoarse but it wasn’t as bad as before.
Hou Dong’s brows rose. There was a melodious lilt to the youth’ words as if he wasn’t used to speaking this language. Well, it wasn’t too strange considering how he looked. Obviously, he was from some foreign land. “I did. I was the one who found you collapsed here at the oasis. I carried you to the pond, gave you water, had one of my men take your pulse and wave some leaves for you. Who else should have saved you if not me?”
The youth looked around and indeed spotted a man waving a big leaf. Now that this man had mentioned it, he could also feel the slight breeze. In that case … He lowered his head and folded his hands in front of his body. “Thank you.” He didn’t know what else to say. In this kind of situation … What was he supposed to do?
Seeing his submissive look, Hou Dong couldn’t help but want to tease him. “What? I’m merely getting a thank you? That couldn’t be. So where’s my reward?”
The youth looked back up, his eyes widening in fear. “I … I don’t have anything with me. I didn’t even have food or water in the desert. I hope that you can be merciful and not demand anything.”
Hou Dong deliberately ignored the last sentence and put a finger under the youth’ chin. “What do you mean? You don’t have anything? Actually, I’m seeing that you have a lot to give.”
The youth looked at him blankly and then looked down at himself. There was nothing but the robe on his body. The things he had had with him originally, had been long lost. He looked back up at Hou Dong, his brows slightly drawing together. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Hou Dong stared at him in a daze. He had wanted to tease him but how come the other person didn’t understand at all? Did he have to be even more obvious? He looked down at the youth’ chest and imagined pulling at the lapel of his robe. His throat felt dry and his blood rushed downward. Oh, as enticing as that sounded, he would still feel awkward. It hadn’t been too much of an effort from his side. Saving somebody if it didn’t demand anything of you was hardly a heroic feat. And obviously, this beauty really didn’t understand. He wasn’t just playing dumb to escape any disagreeable fate.
Hou Dong cleared his throat and finally loosened his grasp around the youth’s body. “Well, never mind. What happened to you?”
The youth lowered his gaze and looked away, not answering the question.
Hou Dong raised his brows. “What? There’s no reward in it for me and now you won’t even tell me how you got into this situation? I’m feeling a little under-appreciated here.”
The men around them hurried away when they heard their Master talk like this. However they looked at it, this seemed a little too much like playful banter. Obviously, their Master hadn’t given up on his plan to seduce the beauty even though he hadn’t used the fact that he saved him to his advantage. They didn’t have to be around when he succeeded. No, it was still better to find another place in the shade and get some rest before those bloody merchants forced them to continue.
Hou Dong ignored them and just focused on the youth in his arms. “Is it some secret you can’t tell me?”
The youth glanced up and shook his head. “No, that’s not it.”
Hou Dong once again grabbed his chin and made him look up. “Since it isn’t a secret, what’s the harm in telling me? If you’re in trouble, I might even be able to help you. My men and I are currently escorting a group of merchants. Maybe we could bring you back to where you came from.”
The youth seemed to think about this proposition. At the very least, he didn’t say no outright this time.
Hou Dong sighed. “Is it really that hard?” He couldn’t help but wonder just what had happened to this youth. If he didn’t want to talk about it at all, then it should be something bad.
The youth looked away but still opened his mouth. “It is just … You will probably find it strange.”
Hou Dong gave a laugh. “Whether I find it strange or not, isn’t that my problem? If you can still get my help, then wouldn’t it be better to tell me?
The youth nodded his head. “Actually, I’m living on the other side of the desert.” He vaguely pointed in the direction, making Hou Dong raise his brows.
This wasn’t where the caravan was headed. In fact, he hadn’t even known that people lived on that side of the desert. Hadn’t all the expeditions that went there returned empty-handed?
“The kingdom isn’t very big and foreigners only seldom come there. But a while ago, a group of bandits somehow happened upon our town.”
Hou Dong felt puzzled. If a group of bandits attacked them, then why was he feeling that the reason he was here was strange? Wasn’t it normal to run away if you couldn’t fight? At the very least, he had seen lots of people do so and with how he looked … Hou Dong blinked. He took another look at the youth and his brows couldn’t help but twitch. “So one of the bandits took a fancy to you.”
The youth looked up and couldn’t help but blush. “I said you would find it strange.”
Hou Dong didn’t feel that it was strange at all but he kept that to himself. “So you were afraid he would do something to you and ran away?”
The youth hesitated but finally nodded his head. “Yes, that’s about right.”
Hou Dong nodded his head. “It’s not that strange. Things like that happen all the time. It’s just your bad luck that there’s a desert here. Without any preparation, you naturally didn’t stand much of chance. It’s a wonder you made it this far.”
The youth nodded and glanced around. “Then … you …” He stopped talking again, not sure how he should continue.
Hou Dong felt awkward. The youth had fled because some bandit coveted him and the first thing that happened when he opened his eyes was some stranger hugging and kissing him. Of course, he hadn’t been able to do anything but panic. Hou Dong sighed and finally let go of the youth. “That’s not the direction we’re going in but I guess I could send you back when we return.”
The youth looked at him gratefully. “You’re really a good person. Thank you very much. Unfortunately … I’m afraid I can’t do that. If I return, then wouldn’t I be in the same situation again?”
Hou Dong sighed. Of course, there was that problem. Who could say for sure that those bandits would’ve left? “How many men were there?”
The youth looked at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“The bandits. How many were there?”
The youth still didn’t understand what he wanted but he still tried to think back. “I’m not sure but it should have been about two or maybe three dozen?”
“I see. Well, don’t worry about the bandits for now. You can come with us to the city first. We’ll see about everything else after that.”
The youth hesitated but then nodded. “Thank you.” Even though he would have loved to return home, there was no way to do so, was there? After all, the bandits might still be there and he didn’t want to bring trouble to his family either. As long as he didn’t come back, things might go well. But if he did … No, he couldn’t do that.
“Alright.” Hou Dong put the youth down on the ground and got up, stretching his arms and legs, purposely displaying his broad shoulders and muscles. “Since that’s settled we should get you something to eat. Right.” He turned back to the youth and grabbed him by the shoulder. “The merchants I told you about, don’t accept anything from them. Whether it’s food or water, you can’t take anything. If you need something, then ask me or my men.”
The youth nodded even though he couldn’t understand why. Weren’t they traveling as one group? What did it matter who gave him something? He didn’t dare to ask though. After all, he was already making trouble for this man. How would he dare to defy what he said?
Hou Dong saw his confused gaze and couldn’t help but give an evil smirk. “You want to know why?”
The youth hesitated when he heard Hou Dong’s tone. “If it’s something I shouldn’t know, then I won’t ask.”
Hou Dong stepped closer and his hand traveled from the youth’s shoulder to his neck, his thumb gently caressing the skin. “It’s because they’re greedy bastards. If you take something from them, they’ll just use it as an excuse.”
Hou Dong nodded. “Yes, an excuse. An excuse for selling you into slavery afterward. They’ve already made up their mind to do that. It has nothing to do with anything you do on this journey. So don’t let them guilt you into anything.”
The youth’s eyes widened. Selling him into slavery? That wasn’t any better than having to lie in the bed of a bandit! He shivered and looked around as if he wanted to find a way out of the oasis.
Hou Dong laughed and pulled him closer. “You don’t worry about that. Just because they’d like to do so, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to. If you don’t take anything from them and just stick with us, they won’t have an excuse. And if they’ll bring it up later on, then they’ll still have to get past me.” His hand lowered and his fingers traced the line of the youth’ lapel. “Since I was the one who found you and saved you, I should be the one who’s allowed to keep you, isn’t that so?”
The youth stared at him dumbfounded. Since he found him he could keep him? That … Well, this man had saved his life. He wondered what to say but Hou Dong had already turned away and was waving at one of his men who hurried over with some food. The youth couldn’t help but glance at Hou Dong’s face. This way of just saying whatever he wanted, disregarding any consequences … he had never experienced anything like this. This kind of self-assuredness, he could hardly fathom it.
Hou Dong took the wrapped package and turned back to the youth, motioning for him to take it. “We only have some dry rations so it’s not much. Just make do with this for now. We can go eat something better in the city.”
The youth looked at the package in his hands with a complicated expression. This man had saved his life. He should be grateful and pay him back in some way. On the other hand, he didn’t know him either. He had warned him about what the merchants would do but who could tell him what this man’s intention was?
Hou Dong looked at him and reached out, cupping the back of his head. “What’s this? You don’t want to eat?”
The youth gulped. Of course, he wanted to eat! He hadn’t had anything in the last few days since he left his town. “This … You saved my life. I’m very grateful. You’ve also offered to bring me to the city and now you’re giving me food. Is this really alright?”
Hou Dong looked at him and his lips curled up. He leaned closer once again, his breath brushing over the youth’s face. “You wouldn’t be worried that I’d be like these merchants, would you? Also wanting to sell you into slavery?”
The youth shook his head. “I wouldn’t dare to presume something like that of my savior.”
Hou Dong nodded. “Mn, I don’t sell anything. If anything, I’d just keep you for myself.” His gaze brushed over the youth’ figure and his eyes glinted. Mn, he certainly wouldn’t say no to this.
In return, the youth lowered his head but couldn’t help and glance up at Hou Dong’s face again. He hadn’t paid too much attention before but now that this man had brought up that he might want to keep him, he couldn’t help but notice that he was quite good-looking. It wasn’t the type of graceful beauty he was used to from home but instead, it was a wild and unruly handsomeness that he had sometimes seen in foreigners when he had visited the capital city.
Back then, he hadn’t cared much about it but now, he couldn’t help but stare once he noticed it. The man’s overall features were chiseled with a strong jaw, a pair of thin lips and an eagle-like nose. Those sharp-cut eyebrows rose at his gaze and the gray eyes below them glinted even more.
Hou Dong leaned closer, his breath brushing the youth’ lips. “Oh? Are you thinking about it? Is it that you like what you see so you’ve decided that you want to become mine?” He reached out and his arms snaked around the youth’ waist. Mn, he didn’t like to force anyone and he certainly wouldn’t be like a bandit and kidnap this beauty but he couldn’t deny that he was interested.
If he could win him over on the journey to the city, then he certainly wouldn’t say no. If he couldn’t … then there was still the time when he brought him back home. But if this youth already fell in love with him here in the oasis, then he would also be very happy.
The youth took a shaky breath and leaned away, turning his face to the side. With the way Hou Dong held him, he was still very much pressed to his chest though. His heart couldn’t help but thump a little faster. He glanced up at him before looking away again.
Hou Dong laughed and let go of him. “Don’t be like this. It’s not like I tried to jump you first thing you opened your eyes, did I? I won’t do so now either. I, Hou Dong, don’t need to force anyone. If there’s somebody I want, then they will come to me on their own sooner or later.” He grinned and turned around, walking away as if he was sure that the youth would follow him.
The youth didn’t do so. Instead, he stood rooted to the spot. He couldn’t help but look at the man’s broad back. If there was somebody he wanted, that person would follow him on their own? Was he this assured that he would be able to win over anyone?
He really couldn’t understand but it wasn’t his problem either. For now, it was only important that this man didn’t want to force him. Everything else … He could still see about that later. If they got along well, then there was no reason to reject. If they didn’t, then they would have to forget about it.
The youth looked at the package in his hands and sat down in the shade of the tree again, slowly unwrapping it. Not considering that man’s good looks, his personality wasn’t too bad. He was somebody who helped those in need even if he wasn’t sure to get something in return. That certainly was a quality he admired in a man. It was completely different from those bandits that plundered and took whatever they wanted just for themselves and their benefits.