The few weeks back to the oasis went by in a flash. The merchants didn’t pay any attention to Hou Dong’s men just as he had predicted and didn’t even come close to guessing that Kanuen was among them. At night, the one who finally snuck out to the extra tent wasn’t Kanuen but Hou Dong. He had figured that it might be less conspicuous for him to walk through the camp and the less Kanuen was outside the fewer opportunities there would be for one of the merchants to notice him.
In that manner, the evening they would spend in the oasis finally arrived. This time, the men didn’t put up an extra tent and Kanuen settled in the one that Hou Dong would use. In fact, the men had put up even fewer tents than normal but they had positioned them in a way that didn’t make obvious as long as they weren’t counted.
Kanuen watched everything proceed from a small gap in the tent’s flap and couldn’t help but raise his brows at Hou Dong when he came in. “What exactly are you planning?”
Hou Dong chuckled. “What do you think I’m planning?” He sat down next to Kanuen and looped an arm around his waist. “They dared to covet you, so I stole you back. They dared to try and cheat us out of our money, so I’ll give them a taste of their own medicine. Tomorrow morning, these guys will wake up quite a bit less rich than they were today.” He lowered his voice at the end and leaned closer with each word, finally whispering the last one into Kanuen’s mouth. Their lips touched and for a moment nothing but the sweet sound of their kiss could be heard in the tent.
It was Kanuen who finally pulled back. “We shouldn’t do that right now. Don’t you have something to do?”
Hou Dong shook his head. “Right now, I only have to care about you. These guys, they can still wait. We’ll only do what we have to after they fall asleep.”
“Won’t they notice? Don’t they have any guards?”
Hou Dong scoffed. “As if! These guys are way too stingy to have their own personal guards. They just trust that the group that’s traveling with them wants their money. So naturally, there won’t be anyone else but us. Well, even if there was, you honestly think they’d be enough to get past me and my men? There’s no way for that to happen. Don’t worry about it.” He brushed through Kanuen’s hair and gave a smile.
Kanuen nodded and leaned into Hou Dong’s body. “I guess there really is nothing for me to worry about then. Anything I can help with?”
Hou Dong shook his head. “Just get up when I tell you to and get dressed, then go to your horse and make sure you’re prepared while we do everything else. When we come over, we have to set off immediately and as silently as possible so as to not wake them up.”
Kanuen nodded. “I guess I’ll be able to do that.”
Hou Dong grinned and leaned down, kissing Kanuen’s head. “I never doubted you could. Alright, I’ll go and talk to the others again. The plan has already been laid out but it can’t hurt to go over it once again. We’re too many people to leave at the same time in the same direction. Even though the merchants normally don’t pay any attention, they would still notice that. So we’ll have to be a little smart about this.”
Kanuen nodded. “I trust you on this.”
Hou Dong got up but still held onto his hands for a moment, even bending down again to give him a kiss on the lips. “You can trust me on everything. After we’re done here, I’ll bring you back home and make sure that whatever bandits are left there are beaten back by me and my men. You’ll have to point out the leader when we’re there so I can hand his ass to him.”
“I’ll do that.”
Hou Dong finally let go of his hands and left the tent, not without looking back once again though.
Outside, a whistle sounded. “Master, you still haven’t had enough? Haven’t you already looked at him all the time in the past weeks?”
This callous remark once again got Sun Jin a slap from Duan Bao. “Say it a bit louder, won’t you? Not afraid that anybody will hear you?” He scoffed and shook his head, going to do his own thing. This guy! If they weren’t careful, he might give everything away. They couldn’t let that happen.
Sun Jin grumbled but didn’t say anything else. He also knew that Duan Bao was right. He probably shouldn’t have said that. He looked around to see if any of the merchants or their servants were around but nobody could be seen. Phew! It seemed he hadn’t caused trouble yet.
Hou Dong looked at him and also walked away, shaking his head. Forget about that guy! He’d better go and speak with the others. Hou Dong made his way around the camp, talking to all of the men one by one or at least with only two or three of them at a time. That way, even if the merchants saw, they would only think that he was checking in on them to see how things were going. It shouldn’t raise too much attention since they had also done that on the way to the border town and on the way back. When he finally returned to his tent, he broke out into a silly grin. Ah, seeing Kanuen in his tent, it felt like … returning home.
He let go of the flap and went over, kneeling down next to him and sweeping him up into his arms. “Did you miss me?”
Kanuen circled his neck with his arms and looked at him as if examining his face. “Well, you’re still as handsome as before. I guess if I said I hadn’t missed you, you might run away and leave me here.”
Hou Dong chuckled. “I don’t mind if you say that, I don’t mind if you think so either. Even if I really was a big and hairy beast, I still wouldn’t mind. As long as a beauty like you is at my side, everything is alright, isn’t it?” He pushed Kanuen down onto the ground, trapping him below his body, his fingers running through Kanuen’s hair, tracing the gentle curve of his neck and then brushing over his chest. This beauty … He really couldn’t believe that this person was his now.
“If I’m so beautiful, then do you really think I’d take a beast?”
“If it’s a gentle one that treats you well … I think you might consider it.”
Kanuen reached up and cupped Hou Dong’s cheeks, gently brushing his skin with his fingertips. “You might be right about that. There’s more to a person than just their looks. There’s definitely much more to you than your looks. When I first saw you …” He couldn’t help but shake his head at that thought. “I actually didn’t pay too much attention to your appearance. I wasn’t really there with my thoughts yet and then you kissed me. Needless to say, my first impression of you wasn’t good.”
Hou Dong smiled wryly. “How can you call it kissing, my beauty? I was saving your life back then! That was merely me giving you water because you were too weak to drink yourself.”
“Mn. It has to be that way. I probably misunderstood.”
Hou Dong nodded, trying to look as earnest as possible. “Yes, you must’ve misunderstood. It’s probably because you don’t really know yet how I kiss. Maybe I should show you?”
Kanuen raised his brows. “Show me? Didn’t you already do that rather often since that day?”
Hou Dong clicked his tongue. “What are you even saying, my beauty? After I promised you that I wouldn’t touch you, I was very well-behaved, wasn’t I? I never did anything you didn’t want me to, did I? So if anything, then I only kissed you after you kissed me. That hasn’t been that often. I guess you might not have experienced it often enough to know the difference. So let’s try it a few more times.”
Hou Dong leaned further down until their lips touched. Kanuen’s fingers brushed Hou Dong’s cheek and then found their way into his hair, trying to pull him closer. Hou Dong chuckled and hugged Kanuen’s waist, holding his neck with the other hand and deepening their kiss.
“When we get home … I mean … After I brought you home …” He pulled back a little and looked into Kanuen’s eyes, giving a shaky smile. “Let’s marry.”
Kanuen raised his brows. “Just like that?”
Hou Dong nodded. “Just like that. Well, if there’s something you feel is missing … Well, I guess I’ll still have to ask your family anyway. I’ll do that when we’re there. It’s just that right now, I can’t do that yet. So you saying yes will have to suffice for the moment.”
Kanuen nodded. “I guess I’ll have to do that then. I definitely can’t let my savior be disappointed.”
“Mn, it would be heartless of you.” He leaned down again, his lips gently brushing against Kanuen’s. “I don’t know how far it is until the Sou kingdom. You have to tell me everything about your customs until we get there. Is there anything I should take note of when asking your parents whether they’d let me marry you? Will they mind if there aren’t any presents? I didn’t have time to prepare anything but I wouldn’t mind giving up my share of things that we got from the merchants.”
Kanuen laughed. “What? You want to give stolen goods as a wedding present?”
Hou Dong shook his head. “Are they stolen goods? I just took back what should be mine anyway. It’s not stealing. That’s taking something back from a group of bandits. These merchants basically are the same. They just have a better sounding name for it.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to believe you then.” He brushed the lapel of Hou Dong’s robe and thought of his home. “Actually, there’s nothing much to consider. The life in Sou is … simple I guess. I don’t know much about your Hua country but it’s not really important whether you’re wealthy or not to get married.”
Hou Dong raised his brows. That sounded much better than he had dared to hope. Well, it wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to his name but he wouldn’t have counted himself a rich man either. And with the impression that Kanuen had given him so far … Right, come to think of it, he still hadn’t asked about that. “Your family, is there something special about them?”
Kanuen shook his head. “No, why would there be?”
“Well …” Hou Dong didn’t know what to say. He sat up and pulled Kanuen onto his lap, holding him close to his chest. “I don’t really know how to say this just that … When I found you and took a closer look at you, I felt that you were somehow special. Not just because you’re beautiful but also because you had a different feel about you. I guess it’s in the way you behaved even more so than how you look. The way you talked to me was different from what I’m used to from people younger than me and well, less physically strong. If somebody doesn’t have a good background in Hua, then even though the law would also be on their side if they are in the right, it is not like there isn’t any corruption. You’ve heard me talk about Kai but even though I think that Hua is a much better place, it doesn’t mean it’s paradise. There are still things that could be much better.”
Kanuen nodded and put his arms around Hou Dong’s neck again. “That’s not a problem. I mean isn’t there something that isn’t perfect in every place?”
Hou Dong nodded. “I guess so. Anyway, I just thought you were special so I thought that maybe your family had a special position in your town or something.”
Kanuen shook his head. “My family isn’t anything special. Actually, there isn’t really any … special position in all of Sou.”
Hou Dong raised his brows at that. “In all of Sou? What about your royal family then? Wouldn’t you call that a special position? And don’t you have any nobles?”
Kanuen shook his head. “There aren’t any nobles. And as for the Royal family … Well, I don’t really know how to explain. In Sou, rather than the family you come from being important, it’s more about …” He fell quiet and pondered just how to phrase this. He had already known Hou Dong for a few weeks and even though he didn’t know even half the things that were there to know about his home, had already gathered that things had to be very different from how they were in Sou. How should he explain? “Let me ask you something first.”
“Sure, what is it about?”
“In your Hua country, is there something you believe in?”
“Believe?” Hou Dong raised his brows and pondered. “You mean like gods and heaven?”
Kanuen nodded. “Yes, something like that. So there is? And does that have an influence on your lives?”
Hou Dong shrugged his shoulders. “Well, we do believe there’s something like that and I guess it might have a bit of influence? At the very least, it’s something you pull out if you want to swear an oath. Other than that, there’s some festivals. There is a pretty nice one that’s celebrating the God of Love. If you have a sweetheart, then there are many things you can do together. And if you’re lucky, maybe the god will grant your wish.”
Kanuen nodded but didn’t think about that festival any longer. “That doesn’t sound as if it has much of an influence on your everyday lives.”
Hou Dong shook his head. “No, not very much so. Although I guess there are some people that take it more seriously than others. I think some of the womenfolk regularly go to the temple to pray. Not many men do though. I guess they don’t have the time or maybe they just don’t believe in it and only believe in what they themselves can do.”
“Well, it’s different in our Sou kingdom. In Sou, our belief is very important. We don’t have many gods, just one. It is the one that rules over everything in nature, which also includes us people. Our faith in him guides us in our life and that is in the lives of every citizen and also in the life of our kingdom. The king who doesn’t have the favor of the god will never be able to stay king for long.”
“So there is no royal family because the favor of the god might not be given to somebody just because he’s a child of the king?” Hou Dong couldn’t help but raise his brows at that. He could hardly imagine that any prince would take that well. The current reign in Hua country had been peaceful for a long time but there were still stories being told about how much of a bloody fight it had been before the current king ascended the throne.
In that regard, they weren’t much better than the people of Kai. The gods had also been pulled out as an argument for why somebody wasn’t suited to the throne and had to be pulled down. And that was in a country where the gods had a place but weren’t too important.
He could hardly imagine just how much trouble that had to bring to Kanuen’s home. Then again, he seemed to remember that Kanuen had said they hadn’t had a war in a long time? How did that fit together then? Or could it be that he had only been talking about war with other countries?
Kanuen answered Hou Dong’s previous question with a nod. “Indeed. Whether somebody can become the next king or not will depend on whether he’s deemed worthy.”
“But how do people know whether he is worthy in the eyes of your god? I mean your god wouldn’t happen to come down every time you need a new king, would he?”
Kanuen chuckled. “That’s certainly a very interesting idea you have there, Mister Hou. I’m afraid it’s not that easy though. There are priests who can communicate with the god. They’ll be able to tell who the next king is supposed to be.”
Hou Dong’s lips twitched and he barely held back from answering immediately. He did have something to say in regard to this but he didn’t dare to be rash. This was the culture of Kanuen’s home. If he said something that Kanuen wouldn’t like to hear … Maybe that would drive a wedge between them. He didn’t want that.
Kanuen gave him a knowing smile. “You don’t seem to think much of that. What’s the matter? Just say it. It won’t change anything between us.”
Hou Dong scratched the back of his head. “Well … I’m sorry if this sounds strange but … Why are you so sure that those priests can communicate with your god? I mean couldn’t they just say they can and then appoint as king whoever they’d like to have in the position?”
Kanuen’s slender fingers brushed through Hou Dong’s hair, combing it back. “You have very little faith in these things. I’m afraid it will be difficult to explain. Maybe you can stay a while with us and see how we live. Maybe that’ll help you understand.”
Hou Dong nodded. “Well, I thought it was a given that I’d stay there for a while. After all, I want to marry you. Won’t that require me to stay there?”
Kanuen nodded. “A while at least. But have you thought about what is supposed to happen afterward?”
“Master.” The voice of one of Hou Dong’s men came from the entrance of the tent. “We finished setting up all the tents and prepared everything else. I’ll take the others for our first inspection around the oasis, alright?”
Hou Dong sighed. That just had to happen when they got to the important part. Well, this was also for Kanuen’s sake. Hou Dong gave Kanuen an apologetic smile and got up, walking over to the entrance. He pushed the canvas aside and stepped out, letting the flap fall back into place to hide Kanuen from view. “Mn, that sounds good. Report back to me after you’re done.”
The two men watched one of the servants of the merchants that had just returned from getting everything they needed for dinner from the carts and was now going to the house in the middle of the oasis. The two of them waited until he was a little further away and then lowered their voices.
“Don’t take anything too early. Don’t forget that we’ll have to leave over the course of the night. No group can take too much, otherwise, they’ll figure things out. And don’t forget to leave traces.”
The man nodded. “Don’t worry about it, Master. Everything’s under control.”
Hou Dong smiled. “Well, I’ll be much more reassured after you’ve taken Sun Jin out of the oasis. We wouldn’t want to have any accidents, would we?”
The other man laughed and nodded before he went off and signaled the others to get onto the horses to ride around the oasis once.
They had already done this a few times when they stopped at the campsites throughout the desert but back then, they had gone by foot. The oasis was larger though so it made sense to take the horses. This way, even if one of the merchants or a servant heard something in the night, they would just assume that Hou Dong’s men were doing another patrol. That should give them enough of an opportunity to leave before anyone could notice something.
Accidents might still happen but that was something they wouldn’t be able to do anything about. Well, they probably could’ve drugged them but Hou Dong didn’t feel too well about that. This kind of sinister means … If he implemented them, he wouldn’t be much better than those people from Kai that he had been cursing. He didn’t want to be like that and even if he had to, he wouldn’t want Kanuen to see him like that.
The first group pretended to patrol while the rest of the men started to make dinner. From the stone house came the smell of cooked dishes and spices, making some of the men scoff.”Too wasteful!”
“Still, it’d be nice to have real food again too. Ah, I don’t like Kai but that food wasn’t too bad.”
The other men murmured and continued to unpack their dry rations but somebody couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“Eh, do you think there’ll be something nice to eat after we’ve finished that … other mission?”
The men kept quiet and pondered by themselves. Actually, it wouldn’t be too strange. The place they were going to was Kanuen’s hometown after all. And with Kanuen being their Master’s lover … And if they really freed his family and their town of those bandits that would be an added bonus. So these people should definitely treat them to something tasty, shouldn’t they? The men imagined the food they’d soon get while unenthusiastically chewing on their dry rations.
“How long do you think it takes till there? Will we have to be on the road for another few weeks?”
Somebody else shook his head. “That can’t be. He didn’t have anything with him, did he? In that case, it couldn’t have been too far.”
“Don’t say that. We’ve never gone in that direction. Maybe there are other places where he could’ve gotten water. And if he’s lived close to the desert before, he might know something that could be eaten around here.”
One of the other men laughed. “Eaten? Like what? Take a look around. There’s nothing here but sand!”
“Well, there’s animals …” Sun Jin’s expression blanked and he put away his dry rations, walking over to Hou Dong’s tent and clearing his throat. “Master, do you think there are some animals in the desert that could be eaten? Like … we could make a fire and fry a snake or something.”
Hou Dong furrowed his brows. He had just returned to Kanuen’s side to continue their conversation and there somebody was again. Did these guys want to drive him mad? Couldn’t he have at least a few moments alone with Kanuen? “Don’t you have the dry rations? Stop being a bother and eat them! If you want to eat something while you don’t know whether it’s poisonous or not, then go ahead. I don’t need an idiot among my men!”
Sun Jin wanted to speak up again but one of the others had followed him and shook his head. “Don’t provoke him any further. He’s already in a bad mood.”
Sun Jin sighed and returned to the others despondent. “I still think frying a snake wouldn’t have been too bad. If it’s really not poisonous …”
The others shook their head and Sun Jin finally picked up his dry rations and continued to eat them with an even worse expression. Their Master was so mean! He had just wanted to eat food that was a little better. Was that really asking too much?
In that way, a few hours passed. Hou Dong’s men went out in groups every now and then to pretend to patrol while the merchants finally finished their meal and talked loudly for a while. Obviously, these guys weren’t afraid of making either wild animals or bandits notice them. Well, why should they? They had a group of warriors right out there and if a few of them died, they wouldn’t mind at all. Wouldn’t that be better? That could deduct pay.
Hou Dong’s men felt even better about stealing from these people when they noticed their attitude once again. They cursed them in their hearts but still held back and kept an eye out for the servants. Finally, the house started to fall quiet. There were only a few people talking now as if most of the merchants had already gone to sleep.
Hou Dong’s men motioned at each other and finally, the first group moved out and opened one of the carts, taking out the valuables. Just as they had agreed upon beforehand, they left everything that was too big to transport for them. They felt a bit unwilling. If they could, they would’ve taken everything from these guys. They definitely deserved it!
Unfortunately, they had to be quick and silent so that was a dream they couldn’t fulfill. Well, they still weren’t polite. Everything that was even remotely valuable and of a size that could be fit into either their clothes or the bags on their horses’ saddles was taken away. They even made the effort to look into the different chests and empty them out one by one. Ha! It really was a pity that they wouldn’t be able to see the expressions of these bastards when they woke up tomorrow and found their possessions weren’t there anymore. Well, just imagining it was sweet.
Even though there were thorough in swiping everything, Hou Dong’s men still knew that they couldn’t take too much time. If any of the servants or merchants woke up, they had to be gone in just a few minutes. Those merchants wouldn’t be able to beat them in a fight but that wasn’t what they wanted. They just wanted to pay them a lesson, not kill them. Nothing had changed about that. So as soon as they had emptied out whatever they could into their own pockets, the men took the horses and led them out of the oasis, riding away and going around it in a large circle before setting off in the right direction.
Back in the oasis, Kanuen looked at Hou Dong. They hadn’t continued the conversation from before after they had been disturbed twice in a row but it was alright. They would have a lot of time after they reached his home. Then, whatever came up could be taken care of and explained for however long they needed.
Kanuen listened for sounds from outside but he actually wasn’t able to hear Hou Dong’s men at all. It was as if they had never left their positions. If the merchants and the servants were able to hear that, then it really would be a miracle.
An hour went by and the next group of men got up, filled their bags and left the oasis in another direction, once again circling around it before they went in the direction of Kanuen’s home country.
Hou Dong was already smiling brightly. Things were going well. If his men continued like this, then nothing should go wrong. He and Kanuen were in the last group to leave so that he would be able to react if an accident occurred. Soon enough, the time for their group to leave came and nothing had happened.
Hou Dong and Kanuen got out of the tent and the men quietly dismantled the tents, putting them away and then went to get the last few valuable possessions of the merchants. This time, they didn’t bother to go in another direction and just rode off toward Kanuen’s home country directly.
The traces in the distance would be gone by next morning anyway thanks to the breeze in the desert and the ones at the edge of the oasis that would be left should be enough to cover up which direction they had gone in. Well, even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t mean much. This was just one last security measure that Hou Dong had wanted to make use of to make sure that no problems would arise even if those merchants would have something in the back of the hand that they could use to get out of the situation.
He really doubted it was necessary though. Never mind that the merchants had never cared enough about Kanuen to know where he came from so they shouldn’t know that this was about him. In that case, they would likely return to Kai and then have to deal with the angry rich man that would have long been subjected to that party they had invited his so-called friends to. That guy certainly wouldn’t have forgotten about that so he would deal with them and things would be over.
If the merchants went in the other direction … Well, then they would have to answer to their families and try to make up for their losses. They probably wouldn’t have the time to run around and try to catch a few warriors. Especially not after a lot of time had already gone by and they didn’t know just where they had gone since then.
Hou Dong motioned at the men to pick up the last valuables and pushed Kanuen to the horses. “Just do as we said and wait by the horses. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Kanuen looked at what the men were doing and shook his head. “Let me help. I don’t have much but there are also some pockets in my closest. I can also transport things.”
Hou Dong raised his brows. Hadn’t they gone over this before? Why was Kanuen making things difficult now? He wanted to retort but Kanuen reached up and put his fingers against his lips, making him stop.
“I know what you want to stay but … you’ve helped me when I had a problem. Now, this is also because those merchants refused to pay you and your men. Since you’ve helped me and since we are … like this now, I should also do my part. Now, let’s not talk any longer. There is no time.” Kanuen lowered his hand and then went toward the carriages, making one of the men point him to what he should put into his pockets.
Hou Dong stared at him in a daze. The gentle and soft person with impeccable morals he had picked up … Why did he seem a little fierce now? Had he done something wrong in the last few weeks and influenced him too much? Well, whatever it was, he also liked this side of him. It really was too cute!
He followed him over and also picked up some things, even taking the time to sabotage the carts so that the merchants would have a hard time repairing them tomorrow, delaying them for even longer.
Finally, everything that could be taken had been taken and the last group of men got onto their horses and rode away without a look back. Kanuen was sitting on his own horse but this time, he wasn’t riding in the back anymore. This time, he was riding right next to Hou Dong at the tip of the formation, looking over.
He pulled down the cloth that had been obscuring his face and gave his lover a smile. “I didn’t make too much trouble, did I?”
Hou Dong also pulled down the cloth and grinned. “You nearly made my heart stop beating. Looking at you like that … I couldn’t help but think that you were even more beautiful than I thought before.”
Behind them, there was some coughing.
Hou Dong glared over his shoulder. “What are you doing there? Trying to destroy the romantic atmosphere? Shouldn’t you be happy that your Master finally found a partner?”
Kanuen shook his head at him. “What are you even saying? Didn’t they do great? Let them have some fun too.”
The men nodded fervently. Yes, actually, they didn’t care too much if their Master had a lover or not but if the lover was like that, then they wouldn’t have anything against it either. At the very least, even though they had to watch them being lovey-dovey the whole time, this still had somebody who would argue for them from time to time.
They couldn’t help but worry in their hearts that the good times might not last for long though. After all, after they were really married, wouldn’t the wife normally agree with her husband? Ah, this wasn’t good at all! They had to make sure that they ingratiated themselves with Kanuen before that. They couldn’t let their Master make trouble!