They finally arrived in the town again and stopped the carriage behind the inn where they were staying. Hou Dong pushed the canvas back and jumped down, turning back to take Kanuen’s hand and pulled him down. “We’re back.” He smiled and pulled Kanuen into his arms, holding him as if he could make sure that he was back this way.
Ah, even though he hadn’t shown it in front of Kanuen, he had been worried that something might happen. Well, it was good that everything had gone well in the end. “Let’s go in then. You can take a bath and get rid of that awful stench and then rest for the night before we return tomorrow.”
Kanuen nodded, still holding onto Hou Dong. He had thought that the merchants would stay longer in this town but he was happy that they would leave tomorrow already. This kind of place … He didn’t want to stay there. After just a few hours, there were too many bad memories. He wouldn’t be able to cope if he had to linger here.
Hou Dong motioned at his men to prepare everything for the next day and then brought Kanuen up to the room he had taken up. He hadn’t thought that things would turn out like this so he hadn’t prepared anything for Kanuen’s return. “Wait here for a moment. I’ll go and get everything ready for a bath.”
Kanuen nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed. He looked at the door when Hou Dong stepped back outside and bit his lip. Hou Dong had just left but he couldn’t help but feel nervous. His heart thumped and a moment later, his hands trembled. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself down but it didn’t help. His arms trembled and those whispers resounded in his ears.
Once upon a time, there was a mythical being. He was beautiful and compassionate and helped the pitiful humans that were crawling in the dirt.
Kanuen gulped. No. He didn’t want to remember this.
Yes, this being was beautiful beyond compare, he was ethereal in his gracefulness and unparalleled in his bearing.
He clenched his fists and pressed his eyes close, silently muttering a prayer to himself. Just a few moments. He only had to wait a few moments for Hou Dong to return.
Anyway, what was given could be taken away and they had found out that there were ways to make this being lose his magic. As for his beauty … A beautiful woman is naturally bound to lie below the body of a man. Such a beautiful being, it could only be fit to be a whore for mankind.
Kanuen’s eyes teared up. That guy might have been talking about an old story but it was obvious he had meant him. Each and every word had been targeted at him, basically telling him that he was beautiful and that this beauty meant he should be humiliated by everyone around him. That was why that man had wanted to give him that name. He wanted him to remember that story, to become that person the story talked about. A whore …
Kanuen shook. No! That wasn’t him. That was just a story. That man hadn’t even known that he would understand. It had nothing to do with him.
Kanuen knew. When he thought about it rationally, he knew. But he still couldn’t help but shiver. Would it be like this forever? Would he never be able to calm down as long as Hou Dong wasn’t with him?
The door finally opened and Hou Dong stepped in with a large basin under his right arm and a bucket filled with steaming water in his left hand. “I brought the basin and some water. Sun Jin and the others will bring some more.” He put the basin down and poured the water inside before he turned to Kanuen.
As soon as he looked at his face, he froze. This … “You … You’ve been crying, haven’t you?” He went over, sitting down next to him and gripped his hands. Seeing how tense Kanuen was, he couldn’t help but feel guilty. Stupid! Why had he left him alone? Wasn’t it natural that Kanuen would feel like this? He should’ve known!
“I’m sorry.” He leaned closer and pulled Kanuen into his arms, gently rubbing his back. He still had to face the other side though to escape the smell of the oil. Ah, he really felt like an idiot.
Kanuen hugged him back, taking a few deep breaths. The smell of dust and leather from Hou Dong’s body inexplicably calmed him down as if nothing had happened in the first place. He felt pathetic. “I’m the one who is sorry. This isn’t your fault. I … I shouldn’t be like this.” He was already safe. Why did he still cry and shake like a leaf? Would that change anything? He should face this like a man.
Hou Dong shook his head. “It’s normal that you’re frightened. Don’t you worry.”
Kanuen nodded and stayed in his arms, his fingers tightly gripping onto the fabric of his robe. Ah, as long as Hou Dong was with him, he would be able to get through this. And afterward … maybe being at home would calm him down. Well, he would see about that later. Maybe this man would stay with him for a while after what had happened. Even if it wasn’t forever, he might at least be with him for another few weeks. He felt that Hou Dong was that kind of person who wouldn’t do things halfheartedly.
Kanuen leaned back and cupped Hou Dong’s cheeks. “It’s alright. I just remembered for a moment. But I’m already feeling better now so you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll just wash off the scent and then we can look ahead.”
Hou Dong nodded and gripped his hands, squeezing them to reassure him further. “Don’t worry too much. From now on, I’m here to protect you. Nobody will be able to do anything to you. We’ll leave tomorrow morning and well, you already know the plan. We’ll go back to the oasis and then we split up with the merchants, bringing you home.”
Kanuen nodded but couldn’t help but worry. “What about the way to the oasis? If the merchants see me there … Wouldn’t they know that something happened?”
Hou Dong gave him a smile even though Kanuen wouldn’t be able to see it behind the cloth covering his face. Ah, Kanuen wasn’t just beautiful, he was also smart. Even after such a scare, he was able to grasp the key point this easily.
“You’re not wrong with that. We’ll have to make sure that they won’t notice you there but it shouldn’t be a problem. They don’t know too much about me and my men. Since we’re going through the desert, all of them will put on different clothes this time around, covering their faces and bodies as far as possible. Everyone will look roughly the same and the merchants won’t notice that there is one person more.”
“You really think I could compare with your men? Even if you dress me up in the same clothes, I guess it would show.” He looked down at his hands in Hou Dong’s. The different skin color was visible at a glance, never mind the difference in size. He wasn’t too small but his frame was much more slender than Hou Dong’s or that of any of his men. The merchants would be able to see the difference with just one glance.
“That would still require them to take a look. You really think they care about my men? Even if one of them died at the side of the road, they wouldn’t care. Isn’t that why they lied to us about this mission? They wanted us to work for cheap, not considering if that would put us into any danger. We’ll just let you ride somewhere in the back but they won’t look too often. In the distance, it’s hard to make out anyway just how big or small somebody is. They won’t notice.”
Kanuen hesitated but finally nodded. Even though he had spent a few weeks with Hou Dong and his men now and had also seen how these merchants behaved, Hou Dong knew them even better. If he said they wouldn’t notice, then they wouldn’t. “Alright, then we’ll do it that way.”
Hou Dong nodded and then motioned at the basin. “Then you should get in there now. Honestly, I can’t stand that smell.”
Kanuen laughed and got up, walking over to the basin. “I guess I’ll have to then.”
Hou Dong followed him over and stood behind him, wrapping him in his arms again. “Don’t worry too much. What happened won’t change anything between us. It’s really just … Well, wash it off, then I’ll give you a real hug.” He kissed his cheek and then reached for Kanuen’s clothes.
“No!” Kanuen pushed him off and backed away before he even had time to think about it.
Hou Dong stared at him with wide eyes, his hands suddenly empty, not knowing what to say. “I …” He secretly bit his tongue and cursed himself. Yeah, why had he done that just now? Just staying with Kanuen would be enough to calm him down, there was no reason to touch him. In fact, doing so might scare him away. After all, that was exactly what happened before, wasn’t it? He had been forced into that bath, forced to take off his clothes and then he had gotten assaulted by these strangers. Naturally, that would remind him.
Hou Dong raised his hands and also backed off. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think about it. I meant nothing by it. You have to believe me, Kanuen.”
Kanuen’s fingers tightened around the label of his robe. “That … That’s not it …”
Hou Dong shook his head. “It’s alright. You don’t have to explain anything. You’re still afraid, I understand that. You don’t have to worry though. I won’t do anything. I’ll just stand over here, alright? I won’t come close, I won’t touch you.”
Kanuen glanced at him, his gaze complicated. “That’s not it.”
“Yes, I know. It’s not that you don’t trust me. I understand that. But you’ve been through a lot and it’s completely normal that you’re confused. It’ll take time to return to normal.”
“No!” Kanuen’s hands trembled but he didn’t know how to explain himself. “That …” His gaze flitted through the room, landing on the basin and then on Hou Dong’s figure. “That … Would you mind waiting outside?”
Hou Dong raised his brows but still nodded. “If that’ll make you feel better, then of course. Don’t worry. I’ll be right in front of the door. If you’re afraid or you need anything, then just call out. I’ll be here in a second.”
Kanuen nodded and waited for Hou Dong to step outside before he gave a deep sigh. He felt pathetic. Why did he still care? Those men had already … He closed his eyes and sighed. Would it change anything if Hou Dong stayed? No, it wouldn’t. It was already too late for that. But he couldn’t help but think of his home and the future.
Even though he felt that it was impossible to stay with Hou Dong forever because of how different their lives were, he couldn’t help but hope. And with that hope, he refused to give up on the customs of his country. If Hou Dong could imagine spending his future with him, even if that would mean to travel through the world with his men and only return home to him every few months, then he still wanted to abide by these customs. Maybe that was dumb but he couldn’t help it.
Kanuen shook his head at himself and got into the basin. The warm, unscented water caressed the skin, making him give a deep sigh. He had thought that this might remind him of what had happened but actually, he felt at ease. This was nothing but a large wooden tub and there was a person right outside the door that he trusted with his life. While he had been deathly afraid back in that inn, he felt a sense of security right now. He was sure that even if he closed his eyes right now and dozed off in the water, nothing would happen to him. There was still Hou Dong outside of the room, making sure that nobody would come in and bother him. Nobody would be able to do something to him as long as Hou Dong was there.
His lips curved into a small smile but he still couldn’t help but sigh again. Ah, so much had happened in the last few weeks. And somehow, it seemed to be his appearance that was the cause for all of this. First, there were the bandits that wanted to force him, then the merchants that wanted to sell him, those guards that wanted to satisfy their lust, that rich man that wanted to possess him …
Wasn’t all of that just because of how he looked? Actually, even Hou Dong might be the same. He had seen him and then said those things. If he didn’t look like this, would Hou Dong still want him?
He put his arms on the rim of the basin and looked at the door, trying to imagine Hou Dong standing on the other side. Even if that man only wanted him because of how he looked, he wouldn’t mind. In that case, his appearance was a blessing.
After all, Hou Dong was a decent man. He had seen that from the moment they met. The promise he had made, up until now, he had abode by it. He hadn’t touched him if he didn’t want to, he hadn’t even said anything if he felt that it wasn’t welcome. He had also saved him just like he had said. Right now, he didn’t doubt anymore. Since Hou Dong had said that he would bring him home, then he would do so. He trusted this man.
It was only … Why did so much have to happen so he could realize that? He didn’t want to have those experiences. Even now, if he closed his eyes and didn’t think of Hou Dong standing outside the door, he would feel like he was back in that inn. He was submerged in the basin in the ground, his body pressed up against the stone tiles that had already been warned by the water. The voices of those two guards came from outside. They were calmly discussing what to do with him as if he was just a commodity, something that could be taken and played with without thinking about it. There was no reason to ask for his approval or his opinion. If they wanted to do it, then they could. He didn’t have any rights. And at the same time, there were even people watching. Those three girls had just stood to the side and let these men do what they wanted. They had no compassion, no second thoughts on whether this was right or wrong. They didn’t care for what this would mean to him.
Was this really the normal life in the kingdom of Kai? Were people like this to each other all the time? He couldn’t imagine that. Why would people do that?
He shook his head, trying to get rid of those thoughts. He was already out of there, he was safe, he didn’t need to worry just like Hou Dong had said.
But now that he had thought back to it once, it was hard to get rid of the notion. His body tensed and he couldn’t help but grab onto the rim of the tub tighter. The water splashed around his body, just like back then. Somewhere in the floor below them, steps sounded as if somebody was coming over. In the room next door, clothes rustled and hushed voices could be heard. Kanuen bit his lower lip and pressed his eyes shut. This had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t in that situation anymore. He was already safe.
A choked sob escaped his lips before he could clasp a hand over his mouth. He looked at the door with worry, his heart squeezing in pain. Just how long until he could get rid of these images? He didn’t want this. He absolutely didn’t want this. He especially didn’t want Hou Dong to hear just how difficult this was for him. Hou Dong had already done enough. There was no need to worry him any further.
In front of the door, Hou Dong indeed couldn’t help but worry. He looked at the thin layer of wood that separated them and wanted to push it open. But remembering how Kanuen had retreated from him, he held back at the last moment.
No, obviously, that wouldn’t be a good idea. Right now, Kanuen was afraid. He was afraid of everything and everyone. He didn’t doubt that Kanuen trusted him normally but it just wasn’t possible right now. He had to wait for him to calm down by himself and then slowly find a way we to make this work. Naturally, that would take time. After all, what he had gone through was terrible.
Hou Dong leaned his forehead against the wall and clenched his hands into fists, barely holding back from punching the wall. Why was there nothing he could do? He felt so useless. He hadn’t been able to spare Kanuen from what had happened in the inn and he had almost come too late at the mansion of that rich man.
Why hadn’t he left the two guards to his men? Why hadn’t he hurried over to the mansion immediately? The things that that man had told Kanuen, the way he had undressed him and touched him … Would Kanuen ever be able to get rid of these memories? Probably not.
That was his fault. And now, he couldn’t even do anything to calm him down. He couldn’t go in there to hold him, he couldn’t tell him that everything would be alright because he honestly didn’t know. He was just … just somebody who had brought trouble to Kanuen.
If not for his decisions, Kanuen would never have gotten into this situation. If he had sent one of his men to bring him back to his country or maybe sent him back to Hua country instead, then none of this would’ve happened.
And what could these merchants have done to him? The person they considered to be their property would have been run away. It wasn’t his task or that of his men to make sure that their property would stay with them. That was what the merchants would have to do themselves if they wanted to call a person their possession.
He and his men were only needed for guarding those possessions against other people. As long as it wasn’t stolen away by some robbers, it had nothing to do with them. And just as he had said to Kanuen right now, the merchants wouldn’t have noticed that one of his men was gone.
It would have been possible. He could have done that. But he didn’t even think of it. No, he had only thought about how he liked how this person looked and how he liked how he talked about his country.
That made all of this his fault, didn’t it? Because of his own selfish desires, because he wanted to attain this person and make him fall in love with him, he had dragged him over to the country of Kai and thus led him right into this situation.
That kind of thing … Kanuen shouldn’t forgive him for it. But knowing him, he probably would. He probably didn’t even see any fault with him. This person … He truly was too good for him. And now this good person was silently sobbing, even trying to stifle the sound because he didn’t want to worry him.
He had never thought of himself as a very good person but right now, Hou Dong felt like an asshole. He probably deserved being beaten up by somebody himself. Ah, unfortunately, there wasn’t anybody who would do so. Well, he could only promise himself that he would do better from now on.
Yes, in the future, he wouldn’t leave Kanuen’s side. He would stay with him for the rest of his life and he would protect him from all harm. He wouldn’t let anybody hurt him at all. From now on, this person could ask whatever he wanted of him and he would fulfill his wishes, no questions asked.
If you like Finders Keepers and don’t want to wait a week for each new chapter, you can already find the whole novel on Amazon. 😉