A week wasn’t long and soon enough, the party left the desert and passed the border to the kingdom of Kai, slowly approaching the border town where the merchants would sell their goods off. The mood between Hou Dong and Kanuen was delicate.
Hou Dong couldn’t help but feel that he had picked up a treasure. Never mind that Kanuen was beautiful. After this time was him, he felt that even more than his outer appearance, his thoughts and the way he spoke were even more appealing. He could have listened to him talking about the kingdom of Sou, his life in the town, the anecdotes about his family for hours and hours on end. He really couldn’t imagine letting this person go.
Unfortunately, even though Kanuen didn’t seem to have a problem being close to him, he also hadn’t indicated that he wanted more than this. Just casually talking, while they were on the road seemed to be enough for him. It truly made him wonder if he didn’t possess any charm at all. Just what did he have to do for Kanuen to consider him?
Seeing their Master try so hard only to be met with a seemingly cold shoulder made Hou Dong’s brothers feel bad as well. They wanted to help but there was nothing they could do. Their Master had the most charm among them. So how come he still wasn’t able to win the beauty over even after such a long time? And actually, the way the beauty looked at him suggested that their Master hadn’t been unable to sway him. So what was there that they could do? There had to be something else awry! Unfortunately, they couldn’t figure out what that something was and thus, they could only continue to look at the two of them worriedly, hoping that their Master would find a way to turn things around.
The only ones who were happy were the merchants. They didn’t care about the feelings of these two men but the closer Hou Dong and Kanuen got physically, the surer the merchants were that the warrior had agreed to their suggestion and used the boy for his pleasure. So now, there shouldn’t be any problem with selling the boy off and returning without having to pay these warriors in full. Wasn’t that a reason to be happy? Thus, they felt that they had made an especially good deal when the party finally entered the border town.
Kanuen looked around and couldn’t help but raise his brows. The street was paved with cobblestones, not a speck of dust in sight. The houses lining it on both sides had two or three stories, the upper ones with wide balconies where people were sitting and eating or standing and chatting with each other, their brightly colored robes standing out even in front of the red-lacquered wood and making for a beautiful picture. The beams holding up the balconies were intricately carved with depictions of animals or scenes of trade, the paper windows of the doors painted with beautiful scenery.
Seeing this, Kanuen couldn’t help but feel a pang in his heart. He glanced at Hou Dong, wondering if the things he had told him about the kingdom of Kai before had all been lies that were only used to scare him and drive him into this man’s arms.
For the last few days, Kanuen’s feelings had been all over the place. Even though he couldn’t help but doubt him at this moment, for the most part, he thought that the man that had seemed to just want to take advantage of him had turned out to be much deeper than that. Hou Dong had often listened to him or told him many things about the world out there. He would hold back when he felt that he was saying too much and if he did something that Kanuen didn’t like, then one word was enough to make him stop. Even despite his occasional doubt, this was exactly the type of man he would’ve liked to be his husband.
Still, he couldn’t help but worry again now that they had entered the city. This was the time when he would see if Hou Dong was serious about him. Would he truly save him after the merchants sold him off? Would he really do what he had promised and bring him safely back home? It was hard to say.
And even if he did and thus showed once again that he was a man that could be counted on, then how many weeks would it take to return to that oasis and finally to his hometown? He was afraid of that time as well. Because by then, who knew how deep he would have fallen? And despite his feelings, he might need to say farewell to this man. He just couldn’t imagine Hou Dong giving up on the life he had had before and he didn’t want to leave his family. So a relationship between them was impossible.
This kind of thought made him feel that life was full of difficult choices. He couldn’t have everything he wanted. His family and his hometown, this man … All of that together was impossible. No, if he wanted one, then he would have to give up on the other. Unfortunately, that was the way it was. Nothing could be changed about that. It truly made him feel bitter.
Kanuen faced back to the front, gulping down his resentment for their situation and trying to swallow his fear of just being played by Hou Dong along with it. He forced himself to smile and lightly spoke up. “Mister Hou, are you sure that this is the same kingdom of Kai you’ve described to me?” It did indeed seem like a place that put a lot of emphasis on money but it also looked like a rich place that wouldn’t need to treat its citizens badly.
Hou Dong gave a low hum and motioned to the side. “Don’t look at the main streets. Look at the small alleys instead. You’ll see what I was talking about.”
Kanuen turned to the side, forgetting about his doubt when he heard Hou Dong’s assured answer. He only got a glimpse of those alleys above the heads of the people when they passed by but it was enough to understand. A few steps in, the alleys didn’t look much different than the main road even though they weren’t quite as colorful. But the further in he looked, the worse things got: The ground was littered with waste, small shadows flitting around from side to side, nibbling at whatever they could find. The pitiful leftovers of a fruit, paper that might originally have been used to wrap up food but had been crumpled and carelessly thrown away, they even scuttled over to the side of the huddled figures lying on the ground, trying to gnaw at the rags wrapped around their bodies and any extremities that were exposed to the air. The people swatted at them, making them scuttle away before they returned soon again.
Kanuen furrowed his brows and wanted to speak up. Something had to be done about this! How could they let the people live in such conditions? But before he could say a single word, Hou Dong nudged his arm and motioned over to a small marketplace in the front.
Kanuen looked over and took in the few dozen stalls that had been spread out on the square. Most of them were offering luxury goods: there were rocks with beautiful patterns, colorful cloth, and sparkling jewelry, spices that were completely foreign to Kanuen, perfumes and powders and everything that the wealthy would love.
Hou Dong motioned further to the side. “See these stalls over there? Those are delicacies of the kingdom of Kai and fruits of the southern isles that they imported. They buy them for just a few copper coins and sell them at five or ten times that price. The merchants don’t mind, the wealthy people of the city don’t mind either. They like it if it’s more expensive. They feel they’re getting something for their money if it is even though they know perfectly well that they’re actually being scammed. Unfortunately … not everybody can afford these prices.”
Kanuen looked over and his brows furrowed even further. Currently, a small child dressed in the rags he had seen in the alleys before had snuck up to one of the stalls and extended a hand, carefully taking one of the fruits while the richly-dressed vendor wasn’t looking. The boy looked on a moment longer and then whirled around, running to the main street in a mad dash.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t gotten far when the vendor turned back around, noticing that something had been stolen. He screamed at his guards that weren’t standing far off. The men chased after the boy, finally catching up to him when he wanted to run back into the alley.
They roughly grabbed him and pushed him to the ground, the fruit rolling out of his hands. The guards didn’t even care for it. They dragged the boy to his feet and back to the stall, leaving the fruit where it had landed in the dirt. When their steps couldn’t be heard any longer, a small girl ran over and picked up the fruit, not even dusting it off before she gobbled it down.
Kanuen shuddered and looked back at the stall where the boy was forced down to his knees. What were that vendor and his guards doing? Where was the sense in this? Obviously, neither of them cared about that fruit! So why punish this child? He looked up at Hou Dong but only got a resigned sigh in return.
“That’s the way it is here. In this city, is still better than in a lot of others. I’ve seen far worse already. You should be happy that the group we’re traveling with only wanted to go here this time. It could have been worse.” He couldn’t help but say it again. After interacting with Kanuen for this long, he felt that he understood him a bit. The life in the kingdom of Sou seemed to be good. He had never seen this kind of ugliness. And as much as Hou Dong wanted him to be able to always live that way, he also felt that Kanuen needed to be prepared. The things he might see in this city even if they only stayed a day or two … It would hit him too hard otherwise.
Kanuen nodded and didn’t dare to look over anymore. He hid in Hou Dong’s embrace, closing his eyes to this bitter reality. “You still didn’t tell me what would happen to me if I was sold here.”
Hou Dong closed his own eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. “And I won’t. It’s better if you don’t know.” Yes, he wanted him to see a bit of the bitterness of this world but he didn’t want to make him scared. Otherwise, he really wouldn’t be able to go through with his plan. He wouldn’t be able to take the thought of Kanuen shivering in fear for the few hours they’d be separated.
He brushed through Kanuen’s hair and continued to watch the scene on the square. He was merely a foreigner here. Even if he pitied the child, there was nothing he could do. The situation in these cities couldn’t be changed if the ruler of Kai didn’t make a change. This was their problem and nothing a foreigner could do anything about. Unfortunately, the people here had already suffered for such a long time that nobody believed things could be changed and unfortunately, the current ruler that had been instated a few years ago was just as incompetent as the previous one. Who knew if the next one would be any better?
The group finally stopped after they had passed the square and reached an inn that didn’t look any less well-off than the houses they had seen on the street leading into the city.
Hou Dong got down from his horse and snorted. He had always felt that Kai was a dirty place but they were good at putting up a front. The main streets would all look like this: Polished houses, well-dressed people, polite manners. But as soon as you looked just a little bit past this first impression, you would see just what kind of hellish place this was. He didn’t even want to know what was behind this establishment right in front of them.
He helped Kanuen down from the horse and held him close to his body. As long as the merchants didn’t say anything, he wouldn’t let go of him. “Stay close to me. With your skin tone, they’ll know immediately that you’re not from around here. If you’re unlucky, you’d just be kidnapped by some slave trader.”
Kanuen smiled. “I thought that had already happened.”
Hou Dong tsked. “They’re just some greedy merchants that know a few men around him. It’s scary to think about it but not even as half as scary as the real slave traders. If you get into the hands of one of them, then I’m afraid even I wouldn’t be able to help you anymore.”
Kanuen nodded and didn’t say anything more, instead stepping closer to Hou Dong and even holding onto his robe. The man next to him hummed satisfaction and patted his head. To the people around them, it probably looked like he was just a slave to this man.
Thinking about it that way, he couldn’t help but feel strange. Not long ago, he had still been in his town, his position not low. And now, whether it was at Hou Dong’s side, or in the hands of these merchants or the eyes of the people here in Kai, he was the lowest kind of person. Somebody’s property, not even human anymore. This truly was … too different. It seemed the world outside of the Sou kingdom was quite scary.
The merchant in front of them turned around and smiled at Hou Dong. “Mister Hou, you and your men have to be tired from the long journey. Why don’t you go and find a place to stay? You can leave him with me. We’ll find a nice owner for him.”
Hou Dong looked at the merchant with narrowed eyes and then turned to look at Kanuen. He pulled him closer against his chest and leaned down as if to kiss him. “Don’t worry.” He lowered his voice, making sure that nobody else could hear them. “They’ve just arrived and they didn’t know that they would have you with them before they came here. They don’t have anyone yet. They’ll send you some servant girl to prepare you and send a message to the person they have in mind for buying you. At the very earliest, you’d be sold this evening.”
Kanuen nodded. He opened his mouth but in the end, he didn’t know what to say. He just looked at Hou Dong, trying to etch this face into his mind. If this man didn’t return to save him, then he would at least have something to think back to.
Hou Dong smiled and bridged the gap between them, his lips touching Kanuen’s cheek. “Farewell.” He let go and stepped back, turning away after a last look.
“Hou Dong!” Kanuen reached out and grabbed his sleeve, tugging at it to make him turn back one last time.
Hou Dong took a deep breath and sighed, turning back to him. “What is it?” He really didn’t know if he would be able to let him go if Kanuen said something now. He was sure that he would be able to save him in time but there was still the fear that something would go wrong. Just one mistake could cost this person dearly.
He didn’t want that. He wanted Kanuen to live a good life. He wanted him to only make fond memories from now on. Letting him go with these people, making him go through being sold off and looking into the eyes of the person that wanted to own him from now on, he didn’t feel that that was anything good.
Kanuen took a step toward him and tiptoed. “Since this might be the last time with each other …” He fell quiet and finally just lifted his head, his lips lightly brushing Hou Dong’s.
Both of them closed their eyes. Hou Dong reached up and cupped Kanuen’s cheeks. His tongue slipped out, licking over the lips that were now soft like the rest of his body as if he had never been in the desert. Kanuen gave a light sigh, opening his mouth and allowing Hou Dong entrance. That tongue slipped inside, brushing over his teeth and entwining around Kanuen’s tongue.
Hou Dong pulled back and took a ragged breath, his hands reaching down and pulling the youth back into his arms, unwilling to let go. He lowered his head again, his tongue once again slipping into his mouth. Wet sounds echoed, making Hou Dong’s men that had crowded around them look away.
The merchant furrowed his brows when he saw the two of them act like this. It was one thing to do this while they were still traveling. After all, nobody had been around to see this. But if he let something like this happen right inside the city where the potential customer lived, then it wouldn’t look good if he didn’t step in to separate these two. He cleared his throat loudly to call the two of them to attention.
Hou Dong and Kanuen ignored the person. Hou Dong’s fingers brushed through Kanuen’s hair, pulling at the silky strands to make him turn his head, letting him enter even deeper. If he could, he would’ve picked him up and carried him inside, demanding for a room where they could spend the next few hours. No, he didn’t want to let this person go. He didn’t want to! Why should he?!
The merchant cleared his throat again and finally stepped up when the two of them still didn’t react. He didn’t dare to touch Hou Dong but he reached out for Kanuen, wanting to grab his arm.
Hou Dong might be indulging in pleasure but he was still a warrior. He had been through too many things to be surprised by this kind of person. He let go of Kanuen’s lips and pulled him aside, swatting the merchant’s hand away like a fly.
“Ah!” Mister Zai held his hand and stared at Hou Dong as if he had gotten mad. “Mister Hou, what do you think you’re doing? That boy is our property, he will be sold off today. How dare you touch him like that?! Do you and your men still want your remuneration?”
Hou Dong stared at him and raised his chin. As if he’d let Kanuen go right now! No, if he had to, he would argue right on the street. He wouldn’t let anyone take this person away. Just when he opened his mouth, a gentle hand brushed his arm. He turned and found Kanuen smiling gently.
“Mister Hou, thank you for taking care of me in the last weeks. I will never forget that you saved my life.” Once again, he tiptoed but this time, his lips only brushed Hou Dong’s cheek, turning toward his ear. “Thank you. But other than promising me, it was a promise to your men too. Don’t renege on that promise just because of me. A brotherhood like that, it shouldn’t be destroyed just because of a moment of passion.” He stepped back and turned to the merchant, glancing at Hou Dong for the last time.
Hou Dong gulped and clenched his hands into fists, having to bite his tongue so as to not to say anything and storm after them.
Mister Zai harrumphed and roughly grabbed Kanuen’s hand. He pulled him into the inn, his servants following behind after giving Hou Dong a dark look.
Hou Dong closed his eyes and took a shaky breath. He couldn’t help but feel as if he had just lost something. He shouldn’t have done this. Forget about that promise! He could still make true on that promise even if he didn’t let Kanuen go right now. There would be a way. Yes, it might be more difficult but there would be one. He was sure that his men would stick with him even if he chose a more difficult way.
His men inched closer and patted his shoulders. “Don’t take it to heart, Master. This isn’t the end. You’ll see him again.”
Hou Dong took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right. Let’s go and get rooms for ourselves then. You have to prepare well for this evening.” He took a last look at the entrance of the inn where Kanuen had just disappeared and turned away, leading his men to another street.
Just when the turned a corner, a small boy was running across the street. Hou Dong narrowed his eyes and called out. “Oi!” With a few steps, he had caught up to him and grabbed his shoulder.
The boy tried to wriggle out of his grasp and run away but Hou Dong held onto him tightly.
“Don’t be like this. I’m not going to do anything to you.” He held onto him with one hand and pulled out a coin with the other, holding it in front of the boy’s face. “Help me out a bit.”
The boy stopped struggling and looked at the coin for a moment before looking up at Hou Dong. He pursed his thin lips and took a closer look at his clothes. Seeing that he wasn’t one of those richly dressed merchants, he stopped struggling and nodded.
Hou Dong took his hand and pressed the coin into it. “You’ve seen the person that was with me before. They’re going to sell him off today. I want you to find out where he’s brought. He’s in the first inn on the second main road right now, the one with the blue doors. They’ll prepare him for a few hours so you’ll have to stay around for a while. Can you do that?”
The boy looked at the coin and tugged it into his clothes. “The one with the dark skin?”
Hou Dong nodded. “The one selling him off is the chubby merchant that was riding in the second row. The one in the green robe.”
The boy nodded and then motioned at the bag that Hou Dong was carrying on his belt. “How much?”
Hou Dong glanced at the other hand of the boy that was lacking several fingers. “One string of coins if the information is accurate.”
“If they catch me …”
Hou Dong sneered. “You misunderstand. I’m not being sympathetic to you. The only one who would worry about you is the person I want to find out about. If he sees you and notices how they punished you, he’d feel bad. I’m just doing this for him. So don’t get any ideas.”
The boy looked at him and bit his lip. In the end, he nodded. “How will I find you?”
Hou Dong turned to the side and pulled Sun Jin over. “I’ll leave him at the entrance of that inn over there.” He motioned with his head. “We’ll go and check afterward. The two of you will stay there and if we come back and what you said was true, then you’ll get the coins.”
The boy nodded and took a long look at Sun Jin before he ran off. Hou Dong waved at his men and they went to the inn, organizing the rooms and then shuffling into the room on the lowest floor to get something to eat. Despite knowing what was going on with their Master, they couldn’t help but feel excited at the sight of the dishes after having to eat dry rations for several weeks. Ah, they really weren’t made for traveling through the desert!
Hou Dong let them be but didn’t stay on to eat with them. Right now, all his thoughts were with Kanuen. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to eat a single bite. Thus he went up to his room, looking through his things and organizing everything he would need for this evening to free Kanuen and pay that so-called customer a lesson.