The merchants were sure that they had solved the issue with Hou Dong and his men. They never would’ve guessed that they had instead offended these people beyond repair. Thus the group rested in the oasis for the day and the night and finally set out toward the city again the next morning.
Hou Dong had happily pulled the youth onto his horse and was currently holding him to his chest. “Since you were fleeing before, you shouldn’t have had too much time to look around. Aren’t you curious about the desert?”
The youth shook his head. “I saw more than enough on the way to the oasis. Furthermore, it’s not like the desert is completely unknown to me. Our town isn’t that far away from the outer fringes. Every now and then, we would also come here.”
Hou Dong raised his brows. “You’re coming to the desert? What for?”
The youth smiled. “Actually, it’s nothing much. We were curious when we were smaller so we came here to explore. Some customs will also be carried out in the desert. Half of our country is surrounded by it. At least that is what the people say. I haven’t been to that many places that I would know.”
Hou Dong gave a hum. “Your country … What is it called? I didn’t know there was a country there.”
“It’s the kingdom of Sou.” He looked over in the direction of his home and couldn’t help but sigh. “My family took me with them to the capital before. Actually, from what I’ve heard, Sou isn’t a big country. It’s also not that well-known. Some foreigners would come by every now and then but we don’t have any large dealings with the other countries. Sou also hasn’t seen a war in a long time. I don’t think we even have an army.”
Hou Dong couldn’t help but raise his brows. “You don’t even have an army? And what would you do if you were being attacked? You can’t expect the other countries to always leave you alone, can you?”
The youth chuckled. “Wouldn’t we do what I did before? You’d run away if you can, if you can’t, then you’ll have to get married.”
Hou Dong frowned. What did this have to do with getting married? He leaned forward and peeked into the youth’ face. “Your country … It wouldn’t be full of beauties, would it?”
The youth laughed. “Why? You can’t imagine that? It’s not untrue. There are a lot of beautiful people in Sou. At the very least, that’s what the foreigners said.”
Hou Dong couldn’t help but chuckle. “Then I’ll guess I’ll have to tell my men to be careful when we go and bring you back. Who knows if they’ll blindly fall in love there?”
The youth nodded. “It can’t hurt if you do. I think in my family, my brother and sister are more beautiful than me.”
Hou Dong gently brushed the youth’ hair behind his shoulder and grabbed his chin, turning his head around to him. “I’ve seen neither your brother nor your sister but I doubt it’s true. Since you’re already so beautiful, it should be hard to be even prettier.”
The youth looked at him and wriggled out of his grasp, facing to the front again. “Maybe Mister Hou hasn’t seen much of the world then. I’m not that much of a beauty.”
Hou Dong gave a hum. “I haven’t seen too much of the world indeed. I’ve traveled a lot in our own country and I’ve been to Kai on the other side of the desert. I don’t know about many other places though. Maybe there is one that is full of beauties, who knows? If there is, I’d be happy to explore that place with you.”
The youth couldn’t help but laugh. “Mister Hou is saying such nice things. I wonder if all of that will still be true after we’ve reached the city. Will you really bring me back home? Will you really want to see me afterward? Aren’t you just expecting something from me?”
Hou Dong once again gave a low hum. “I’d be lying if I said that I don’t have some expectations.” Once again, he brushed through the beauty’s hair with a smile. “Eh, what’s your name?”
The youth laughed once again. “Knowing me for longer than a day and only asking for my name now. So this is the sincerity of Mister Hou?”
Hou Dong clicked his tongue. “Alright, alright, this is my fault. I should have asked earlier. So what’s your name now? Don’t be like this.” He leaned down and his lips brushed the beauty’s cheek.
The youth tensed and looked up, his eyes widening and his hands trembling slightly. “Didn’t you promise something?”
“Relax.” He brushed the youth’ thigh and leaned even closer. “Those bloody merchants are looking. If you don’t want to give our plan away, you’ll have to bear with it for a while. Don’t worry though. What I promised, I’ll keep. Whether it’s not touching you or bringing you home, I’ll do all of that.”
“So this is what Mister Hou means when he says he won’t touch me? You certainly have a strange way of showing this. Could it be I haven’t learned the language very well?”
Hou Dong sighed and leaned back again, his arm returning to the youth’ waist to hold him close and make sure he wouldn’t fall from the horse. “You also know what I mean. Do you have to make it difficult for me?”
The youth shook his head. “I’m not making things difficult. I’m just saying it as it is. You say one thing but then you do another. Saying that the merchants are looking, isn’t it just an excuse? You just wanted to touch me so you went ahead and did. How do you expect me to trust you?”
Hou Dong sighed again and looked around at his men that were pretending to be deaf. Oh, great, he was losing a lot of prestige here. “Alright, I won’t touch you anymore. Regardless of who is looking, alright? Happy now?”
The youth kept quiet for a moment before finally speaking up again. “It’s Kanuen.”
“My name. It’s Kanuen.”
Hou Dong stared straight ahead. “Kanuen … It sounds beautiful. What does it mean?”
The youth smiled and pointed up at the sky. “It means twilight in your language. It’s because that was the hour when I was born.”
Hou Dong looked at him and nodded. “That’s a beautiful hour.” He wanted to say something sappy in addition to that but he held back. Kanuen was right. He had said one thing but done another. If he didn’t just want to sleep with him once, then he would have to try harder. Being honest with him, establishing trust between them, that was what he had to do if he wanted to have more than that. Thus he kept quiet and just continued to ride on.
The group continued through the desert, halting in the campsites that previous groups of travelers had left in some safer spaces. Hou Dong still didn’t let his guard down. Bandits normally liked to attack this kind of place the most. After all, this was where most caravans would stop. And other than that, the desert itself was also unpredictable. Who knew if there wouldn’t be a sandstorm coming the very next moment? He didn’t even want to imagine what would happen if that was the case.
While they traveled, the warriors didn’t interact much with the merchants. Even now when it was time to set up camp, the merchants and their servants did what they had to do while the warriors set up their own tents and ate their own dry rations. They certainly didn’t want to interact with each other.
The merchants couldn’t help but look at the warriors and turn up their noses at them for the simple means of living while the warriors would have liked to spit at them for wasting so much place for food and unnecessary things. What was it with cooking that stuff they brought from Hua country? Furthermore, how fresh could that be after they had traveled through the desert for several weeks?
Only Hou Dong and Kanuen didn’t bother about it. Hou Dong quickly put up his tent and took their rations from what they had prepared and then, he pulled the beauty into the tent.
“Here, have some.” He handed Kanuen his part of the ration and sat down next to him. He very casually put an arm behind him and leaned close. He didn’t touch him though.
Kanuen looked up at him and nibbled at the food, not saying anything. He could see that Hou Dong was trying hard. He had stayed true to his promise and not touched him again and instead used the time when they rode through the desert and when they rested in the camp in the evening to tell him about himself and his life so far. He also asked more about the kingdom of Sou and his life in the town, showing interest in his matters.
Kanuen still wasn’t sure if this was what he wanted though. He had always imagined a different life. Marrying somebody from their town or maybe from the next city, settling down close to where his family lived so he would be able to see them every once in a while at least, continuing to follow the customs of Sou and the life he was used to … That had always been part of his plan for his life.
But Hou Dong … He was used to another kind of life. He was a man that liked to travel the world, to see new things, to meet new people, to try whatever he came across. In a sense, he was the kind of person that would drift about. He also had these people he cared about.
Even though they didn’t know each other very well yet, Kanuen could see that Hou Dong and his men had a very close relationship. Even though the others called him Master, they were more like a group of brothers. Most of the time, one of them wouldn’t even need to say a whole sentence for the others to nod along or shut the person up. They could see how somebody was doing and always knew what to do to cheer them up. He had also seen them quibbling and arguing a lot but it normally didn’t last long. At the very least, when they set up camp in the evening, he would see the very same men drinking together.
This kind of life … He couldn’t see Hou Dong giving up on it. But he wasn’t too sure if he would be able to become a part either. He didn’t know these men and he didn’t know if he was cut out to do something like this. He had seen quite a few of the cities in the kingdom of Sou but that was merely because the kingdom wasn’t too big in the first place. Traveling around a bit, visiting the larger towns and cities in the vicinity, going to the capital, that was just a normal thing to do for the youths living in Sou. It was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing special. Leaving the country and going somewhere else … That did sound scary.
Hou Dong had no idea what kind of thoughts were already going through Kanuen’s head. “We only need another week until we reach the city. You don’t have to be worried. As I said, we’ll save you before things can get dangerous. So don’t worry, yes?”
Kanuen nodded. Even though he wasn’t sure about sharing his life with this man, he had started to trust him unwittingly. “That city, what kind of place is it?”
Hou Dong unwrapped his ration and took a bite, thinking about the question. To him, that city wasn’t anything new but Kanuen shouldn’t have been there even once. “Mn, how to explain this? Kai is a country that is rather …” He pondered how to call what he had seen of this country so far and finally gave a wry smile. “I think it’s a rather shitty place.”
Kanuen raised his brows. “How so?”
“Well, take these merchants for example. They would sell you just because they saved your life when they found you in the desert. If you told that story to anyone in our Hua country, they would be drowned in spit. Originally, most of them were citizens of our country too. But they’ve been over there in Kai so often that you can’t tell anymore.
“Kai is a place that is ruled by money. If somebody needs it, they’ll sell off half of their family to get it.
“Hua has servants like those guys traveling with the merchants that will help some with every kind of odd jobs around, but they will get paid. In Kai, there aren’t any servants. They only have slaves. They’re people from their own country that were sold by their families or foreigners that were brought over from somewhere like you and then sold off.
“If you are an able-bodied man in Kai, then your best choice is to become a mercenary and join the slave traders. They earn well, enough to provide for a small family. They’re not good people though. Well, I guess it’s easy to speak like that if you’re from another country where things are better.
“Kai isn’t really in a good situation. There have been wars, some of which lost them a good chunk of their territories and then several years of drought in the North. The south borders on the ocean, giving them the chance to trade with some of the people on the isles out there. Unfortunately, there were some disasters there too. The harbors were destroyed, some of the cities completely eradicated. A lot of income was lost, many families died, influential people went missing. Well, even before, there was some shady business going on there. It’s … It’s not a good place.”
Kanuen nodded. “Then … if I was sold off to Kai, what would happen to me?”
Hou Dong looked at him and sighed. “I won’t let that happen. Isn’t that enough?”
Kanuen smiled. “It’s nice if you worry about me but I think I’d like to know. That is the life that would have awaited me. Maybe that’s my fault. Running away when the bandits came, collapsing in the desert … If I had been a bit smarter or a bit better prepared or just not have left my family alone in Sou, then things might have turned out differently.”
Hou Dong reached over and brushed through Kanuen’s hair. “That’s not your fault. If it hadn’t been for these merchants, then talk about you being sold off never would have come up. And fleeing from the bandits is what most people would have done.”
Kanuen nodded but he couldn’t help but sigh. “I can’t help but think about my family though. You know I already said that my brother and sister are also very pretty. With me running away … Do you really think the bandits would just leave? Who knows if they didn’t decide on one of them? Or maybe they got angry and killed them. I don’t know. Maybe if you bring me back, there won’t be anything there anymore. Isn’t that what bandits do?”
Hou Dong sighed. “We’ll see about that when we go there. Don’t think too much now. It’s only a few more weeks.”
Kanuen nodded but he still couldn’t help but think about it. His family … They had also wanted to flee. That was what the people of Sou did when something like this happened. They weren’t warriors, they had never been. If they were able to escape the conflict by running away, then they would do so. He had never thought that that would be a problem. But now that the situation had come up, he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it would have been better to stay. Sure, he didn’t want to become a plaything for a bandit. But if that was what could save his family, then maybe that would have been the right thing to do.
“Heh.” Hou Dong grabbed his chin and made him face in his direction, shaking his head at him. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. It really isn’t. It is entirely those bandits’ fault.”
Kanuen smiled. “Oh? How did you know what I was thinking?”
Hou Dong let go of his chin and instead tapped his forehead. “Whenever you think of your family, you furrow those lovely brows. Makes me feels as if a kitten is scowling at me.”
Kanuen’s eyes widened. A kitten? He certainly couldn’t be called a strong man in comparison to Hou Dong and his brothers but he couldn’t be called a kitten either, could he?
Hou Dong chuckled and leaned in closer. “The kitten is trying to scratch my heart. It’s tickling.”
His breath brushed Kanuen’s skin, making his heart thump in response. He opened his lips to retort but no words came out.
The two men looked at each other in silence and Hou Dong leaned closer. “Beautiful little kitten, have you considered it already?”
Kanuen smiled, feeling a little sad. “A little kitten … Wouldn’t it need to stay with its family?”
Hou Dong sighed. He had feared as much. The more he heard from Kanuen about the kingdom of Sou, the more he understood that the youth had deep roots there. He wouldn’t want to leave. But what would a warrior like him be able to do there? And what about his brothers then?
He leaned back and nodded. “Let’s go to the city first and see how things go. Afterward, we’ll still need to return to the oasis. After that … There will still be time to think about it.”
Kanuen nodded. “Yes, there will still be time to think about it.”
The two of them knew though that there was no chance for them to be together as long as neither of them was willing to give up on his old life. Regardless of what they felt, they would only be able to be together if one of them would be willing to follow the other into his life.