The group continued riding through the desert, the mood much better than before. Now that the merchants weren’t around, Kanuen didn’t have to cover up anymore and after the first night was over and they had created some distance between them and the oasis, he switched to riding with Hou Dong while they let the other horse carry the valuables. In this way, Hou Dong’s men were treated to an even more obvious display of the couple’s affection. Sooner or later, they would have to get used to it anyway. At the very least, that was what Hou Dong told them when they complained, making them grumble even more.
They rode through the desert for another two weeks until the surroundings started to change. Among the sand, stones peeked out every now and then, and slowly, the ground below the horses’ hooves got harder. Hou Dong and his men curiously looked around while Kanuen’s gaze turned nostalgic. This wasn’t far from his home. It would only be short while longer until he was back. Now, he couldn’t push the thought off anymore. Just what had happened to his family? Were his parents still alive? Had the bandits done something to his brother and sister? And what about the other people in the town? Had they suffered a lot?
Hou Dong’s arms tightened around his waist and he leaned forward to kiss Kanuen’s cheek. “Don’t think too much. Even if you do, you won’t be able to change anything. Let’s just continue on and then see what happened. If the bandits are still there, then my men and I will drag them off. If they aren’t … Well, we’ll just see how your family and everyone else is doing and do whatever we can.”
Kanuen nodded. “I’m just … I’m afraid. I’ve been gone for so long. In this time, anything could’ve happened.”
Hou Dong nodded his head. “That’s true.” He would’ve liked to say something different but he couldn’t. Kanuen was right and they both knew that. From the oasis until here they had already needed two weeks. And that was while they were riding at a speed that couldn’t be described as slow. Kanuen hadn’t been on horseback. He couldn’t have been since he had said that he had never ridden a horse before.
Well, it wasn’t important anyway. Regardless of how he got to the oasis, he still would have needed at least two weeks to get there, maybe even more. Then, he had needed to follow them to Kai which also took a few weeks. The same was true for the way back. So by now, a quarter of a year had already gone by. In that amount of time … too much could happen. He didn’t even want to think about what that might mean for Kanuen’s family.
The two of them fell silent and Hou Dong’s men felt that it wasn’t appropriate to continue joking around either. They kept silent with them and instead looked around, trying to find out more about this place and maybe getting some clues that would help them later.
Unfortunately, there was nothing they could see of either the bandits or any people living here. In fact, this stretch of land didn’t seem like anybody was living here at all. Well, it figured. If it wasn’t like this, wouldn’t they have already known that there was a kingdom called Sou around here? Since they hadn’t, then there had to be some reason for it. And it seemed this reason was the way that it was connected to the other countries.
There was the desert and behind the desert was a stretch of stony terrain with only a few shrubs standing here and there. Afterward, some even stonier hills could be seen and towering mountains further in the distance. This didn’t look like an inviting area at all.
They wondered what Kanuen’s town would look like if the surrounding area was like this. Would it also be surrounded by hills and stone? They glanced at the beauty and immediately shook their heads. No, that couldn’t be. This kind of beauty certainly wouldn’t live in a place like that. No, it should be some enchanting village at the edge of a green forest or maybe the bank of a crystal-clear river. Something like that. Something like straight out of a story about immortals. Yes, that was just how he seemed. Like one of those super beautiful immortals that were talked about in stories.
Finally, the group got closer to the hills and Kanuen directed them to a small path between them that soon led up to one of the higher mountains.
The men raised their brows and even Hou Dong couldn’t help but wonder if Kanuen had gotten the right direction. It didn’t seem like there would be any path around this mountain.
Finally, it turned out there wasn’t. Instead, Kanuen led them to a path that was leading up to a crack in the mountain. It was big enough for two or three people on their horses to pass through next to each other but it really made this country seem as if it was even more isolated than they had thought. Well, that was also to their advantage.
Hou Dong steered their horse toward the crack and looked around. This explained why there hadn’t been any war. Even if Hua or Kai wanted to declare war on Sou and took the pain to lead the army through the desert to get here, it would be hard to get into the country and fight. How would any army get through here? And going over the mountain didn’t seem like a wise idea either. Even if the people of the Sou kingdom weren’t prone to fighting, they shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with somebody who had to pass an unknown mountain.
Hou Dong and his men passed through the crack after about half an hour and the world that opened up before their eyes couldn’t be compared with the other side at all. Contrary to the rocks that seemed lifeless and the unforgiving desert with its hot and dry wind, this place seemed indeed like the Paradise Hou Dong’s men had imagined.
Right in front of them, there was indeed a meadow and lush vegetation was growing on the walls next to them. A grove could be seen not far from them, a warm breeze rustling in the leaves before it finally blew toward them and gently caressed their cheeks before it turned in front of the mountain. The men fell silent at this sight and the gurgling of a stream drifted over from a place not far from them.
Hou Dong’s brows twitched. He had tried to imagine what the kingdom of Sou would be like after the things that Kanuen had told him and he had felt that it shouldn’t be too different from their Hua country. Indeed, it wasn’t. At the very least, they also had forests and streams and meadows in Hua. It was just that the overall feeling didn’t match. This didn’t seem like the real world. It seemed as if he had just walked into a dream. It really made him wonder if maybe Kanuen wasn’t so simple and was actually somebody from the spirit world that had put him under his spell.
He shook his head to get rid of such a ridiculous notion and turned back to the person in his arms. “This is the kingdom of Sou?”
“It is. Our town isn’t too far away. I just don’t know …”
Hou Dong nodded. “I understand. Don’t worry about it.” He turned to his men and motioned for them to wait. “I’ll go with Kanuen and take a look at the situation. We’ll make a plan afterward.”
He waited for Kanuen to motion in the direction of the town but the beauty didn’t move at all. Hou Dong raised his brows. “Is something the matter?”
Kanuen looked around uneasily before he finally reached out and grabbed onto Hou Dong’s clothes. “There were many men. If they are still there … Would it really be good if only the two of us went? What if something happens to you?”
Hou Dong couldn’t help but stare at that beautiful face. For the last two weeks since they had left the oasis, he had only ever seen Kanuen seem free and happy. He would smile a lot and even laugh from time to time. He even teased some of his men after he had gotten to know them a little better. It had him made feel that the issues of the past — whether it was about the bandits or about what had happened in the border town — were in the past and would stay there but it seemed he had been too hasty.
Well, he shouldn’t be surprised. What Kanuen had gone through … It wasn’t that easily forgotten. Now that he was confronted with the thought of seeing those bandits again, the terror that had originally been in his heart once again raised its head. Wasn’t that normal?
Hou Dong cupped his lover’s cheeks and smiled. “I’m happy that you’re this worried about me. But you don’t need to be. I’m a warrior. You can believe me when I say that I’m able to judge the situation. If you feel that it is too dangerous, then we’ll leave immediately. Alright?”
Kanuen seemed like he still wanted to say something but after looking into Hou Dong’s eyes for a moment he finally nodded. “Alright. You know what you can do and what you can’t do. I shouldn’t interfere too much.”
“Your opinion is important to me. You know that. But this concerns your family. You’re already worried and the longer we wait, the worse it’ll get. Sooner or later, we’ll have to do something. And right now, it’s in the middle of the day. They won’t expect anybody to attack them right now so their guard will be down. We’ll just take a look and if they spot us, we can still pretend to be just travelers.”
Kanuen gave him a complicated gaze. “I doubt they care whether someone is a traveler. If it is somebody they want, they will take them. If it’s somebody they don’t want, they might kill them.”
“Then I’ll have to be fast and kill them first. Don’t worry about it.” He leaned down and gave Kanuen a kiss on the forehead before motioning to the front again. “Alright, whether we leave now or later, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Let us at least take a look. Maybe they aren’t even there anymore.”
Kanuen nodded and finally motioned in the direction, leading Hou Dong to the place where his town was. The closer they got, the worse he felt though. He couldn’t help but tremble and his breath started to become erratic, his hands getting slick with sweat. He was afraid. Just what would he see when they went in there?
Hou Dong slightly leaned forward on the horse and pulled Kanuen closer to his chest. “Don’t be afraid. I know it’s easy to say and hard to do but I’m here. We’ll see what we can find out and then we’ll make a plan.”
Kanuen nodded and grabbed onto the hand on his stomach, trying to find peace of mind from Hou Dong. His breathing indeed calmed down and he leaned against his lover, feeling his broad chest and strong arms. He felt reassured. Yes, Hou Dong was with him. It wouldn’t be like the last time.
Hou Dong leaned forward and kissed his cheek and the two went on, slowly getting closer to the town.
It wasn’t far from the mountain. Actually, this town might have been the one that was the closest to the border of the Sou kingdom. It was close to the forest and one would get there if they followed the path leading from the mountain to the left of the forest.
Kanuen motioned for Hou Dong to slow down when they got closer. The terrain this close to the mountain was still a little hilly so they were able to hide if they got off the horse. Hou Dong got down but motioned for Kanuen to stay in the saddle. “It’s just behind the hills, isn’t it? Let me go and take a look myself. If they’re really still there it would be better if they didn’t see you.”
“Then you …”
Hou Dong grabbed Kanuen’s neck and pulled him down, giving him a kiss. “Well, you’ve learned how to ride. If something happens to me, I’ll just scream loudly and then you’ll take the horse and right back to the others as fast as you can. Then you can lead my men and come and rescue me.” He grinned but Kanuen didn’t feel like joking at all. Couldn’t Hou Dong keep serious? These bandits were really dangerous! And he was worried about him.
Hou Dong could also see that Kanuen wasn’t in the mood for any jokes. He sighed and patted his cheek. “Honestly, you don’t have to worry. It’s been a few years since I became a warrior. I’ll be able to deal with a few bandits. I mean it’s not like I’m running in there to challenge them all by myself. I’m just going to have a look. They won’t draw any weapons and nothing will happen. They’ll probably not even see me.”
Kanuen nodded but he couldn’t help but be tense when he saw how Hou Dong walked up the hill and finally crawled the last bit of the way, peering over the top and into the town.
They wouldn’t see, would they? He waited with bated breath while Hou Dong lay on top of the hill. A few minutes went by but finally, Hou Dong crawled back down and then got up, walking over to Kanuen and getting back onto the horse. He made it turn and then left, riding back to the others.
Kanuen’s heart beat madly but he didn’t dare to ask. What if things were bad? What if … What if everything Hou Dong had seen was a town full of blood? What if his family —
Hou Dong patted his leg. “Don’t think too much. It didn’t seem like there was a problem with the town. The bandits are still there but they shouldn’t have killed anyone. I can’t say for sure if there was something else they did but at least there wasn’t a large bloodbath.”
Kanuen heaved a sigh of relief and leaned back against Hou Dong. “Thank god!”
Hou Dong nodded and once again leaned forward, kissing Kanuen’s cheek. “Yes, thank god. So don’t be afraid. We’ll figure something out.”
Kanuen nodded and kept quiet until they were back where the others had waited. The men looked at Hou Dong expectantly but he didn’t say anything until he had gotten down from the horse and helped Kanuen down as well. Only then did he turn back to them. “They are still there so we’ll have to fight. I could see a few men and I do think we shouldn’t have too much trouble.
“They’re really just loose bandits. I’d say they might even be a group that was caught in one of the other countries and barely managed to escape but wasn’t able to make a living there. At the very least, they weren’t vigilant and they don’t seem to have any measures in place to make sure that the town isn’t attacked. Even though it’s been a few weeks since they came here, they shouldn’t have lost their bite this much in such a short amount of time if they originally had some prestige.”
His men nodded. “Then do we attack today already?”
Hou Dong shook his head. “No, we just came out of the desert after traveling continuously. It’s better to rest one more night before we do something. If those bandits haven’t done anything to the people in the town up until now, they wouldn’t do anything now either.” He was sure of that but couldn’t help and turn to Kanuen. “Will that be alright with you?”
Kanuen grabbed his hand and nodded. “Of course. Naturally, I want my family safe but it wouldn’t make much sense if you and your men got injured because of that, would it? After all … You are also my family now.”
Hou Dong gave a hum and turned back to the others. “Well, now that we know, you should set up camp and rest a while. We’ll finalize the plan later on and then attack tomorrow morning.”
The men nodded and went to open up camp. Hou Dong put up his own tent and pulled Kanuen inside. He couldn’t help but smile when the two of them sat down and his lover leaned against his chest. Even though they had already done this quite a few times, he really couldn’t get tired of it. It was just too great of a feeling to be with the person he loved.
He gently combed through Kanuen’s hair and leaned down, kissing his temple. “Don’t worry. Tomorrow, everything will be over. We’ll chase those bandits off and your family will be free again, then we …” In the end, he didn’t dare say anything else and just hugged his lover to his chest, carefully holding him and brushing through his hair.
Yes, tomorrow, those terrible incidents would end and something new would start, something better. He shouldn’t be too hasty though. After all, he would still need to pay attention tomorrow. If he did something wrong and was injured or even let Kanuen get injured, then he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself. No, he couldn’t be careless.
The two of them ate some of the dry rations and rested in each other’s embrace to regain their strength. If they could, Hou Dong would have wanted to stay like this for a few hours but he knew they couldn’t do that. Even if they only attacked tomorrow, they had to plan and prepare things.
He closed his eyes and his fingers once again brushed through Kanuen’s hair. “I guess it’s time to get up and talk about the plan with the others.” He turned to Kanuen and raised his brows. “You probably want to be part of it, don’t you?”
Kanuen nodded. “The people in the town are my family and the people I grew up with. If I don’t go there, then why should you?”
Hou Dong cupped his cheeks and shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean that. I won’t let you go into the town until the bandits are caught. But you can be there and help us make a plan. That will be alright.”
Kanuen furrowed his brows and grabbed Hou Dong’s wrists, trying to pull those hands down. “But … I know these people. Wouldn’t it be better to have me be there? What if they think you’re also bandits?”
“Then what? They weren’t able to get rid of those bandits, so do you think they’ll be able to get rid of me and my men? They wouldn’t suddenly attack. After everything you’ve said, I doubt the people of Sou would do something like that.”
Kanuen’s gaze was complicated but he nodded. “Alright. If you’re so adamant about it, then I’ll do as you say.” In the end, he couldn’t expect too much. Even though he called this man his lover and he was also sure that Hou Dong meant every word that he had said and really wanted to stay with him, this wasn’t something he could get involved in. He wasn’t a warrior, Hou Dong was. And he needed Hou Dong to take care of this if he wanted his family and friends to be free. He shouldn’t make trouble for him.
Hou Dong silently heaved a sigh of relief and then got up, pulling Kanuen to his feet too. “Let’s go then. The sooner we plan, the better we’ll be able to prepare and make those bandits pay tomorrow.”
Kanuen nodded and the two of them left the tent and went over to the other men, sitting down on the ground in a circle.
Hou Dong didn’t lose any time and got straight to the point. “I haven’t been able to see much but it seems that the bandits have integrated into the town. If I’m not wrong, they will have taken up several houses, maybe ousting the people that had been living there so they had to go somewhere else or maybe holding them captive inside.
“We can’t endanger the lives of these people so we have to be careful. First of all, a few of us will have to search for more details about the situation of the bandits. It shouldn’t be more than about two dozen men so we’ll be able to take care of them but it will be difficult if they get a hold of someone. Kanuen, can you help us draw a plan of the town?” He turned to his lover who nodded in return.
“Yes. The town isn’t very large. It’s only about three dozen houses.”
“That’s good. We can look for good hiding spots and then try to surprise them. I would still suggest that we try to draw some of them away beforehand to make sure they can’t use the townspeople against us.” His gaze flitted over to Sun Jin and he smiled. “Sun Jin, how about you take up the most important role in this mission?”
Sun Jin straightened up. “The most important role? What is it? I’ll be certain to fulfill it to the best of my ability, Master!”
Hou Dong grinned. “You will be the decoy.”
Sun Jin’s eyes widened. “The decoy?”
Hou Dong nodded. “Mn, the decoy. You will go in there, attract their attention and then rush out when they turn hostile. You’re fast so they’ll have some trouble trying to catch you. Try to make as many men as you can chase after you. If you’re able to take one or two of them out in the town already, then do so. The fewer people there are to threaten the townspeople, the better. Can you do that?”
Sun Jin puffed up his chest and raised his chin. “That much? Of course, I can! That’s such an easy task, you’re really underestimating me, Master.”
Hou Dong chuckled. “I hope I am.” He said so but to be honest, he did trust in Sun Jin’s abilities. If this guy was really just an idiot, they wouldn’t let him tag along. No, this was a task that Sun Jin would be able to do.
Hou Dong nodded with satisfaction and then turned to the others. “Duan Bao, Shen Ling, Lei Kun, you three come with me to investigate later on. The rest stays here and prepares for tomorrow. Any questions?”
His men shook his head in the three he had just named got up, walking over. Kanuen couldn’t help but look at the faces of the three people. He already knew all of Hou Dong’s men a little closer and knew that they were very good at what they did. Seeing Duan Bao among them made him relax though. He was a physician. If something happened, he would be able to help Hou Dong take care of his injuries. That was very good. He wouldn’t want Hou Dong to suffer because he saved his family. That wouldn’t be a very good exchange.