The two of them turned back to the horse, meeting with the gaze of Sun Jin who had just gotten back to his feet. Kanuen let go of his brother’s hand and rushed over, gently grabbing Sun Jin’s shoulders. “Sun Jin! How are you? You haven’t been hurt, have you?”
Sun Jin’s expression eased up when somebody finally asked him how he was doing. Ah, the Master’s lover was still the best person around! He wanted to pretend to be pitiful for a moment longer to bask in this caring atmosphere but the gaze he got from Piul made him shiver. Alright, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. “Oh … I’m alright.”
He lowered his head and looked at the ground with a pitiful expression. This really was unfair. He just wanted somebody to care for him. Why couldn’t he have even that? Their Master would probably be able to bask in Kanuen’s care for the rest of the day. And who knew what would happen in the next few weeks? Why couldn’t he have anything like that? He should look if there was a pretty girl in Kanuen’s hometown. Maybe she would treat him better than that fierce beauty.
Kanuen heaved a sigh of relief. “So you’re alright. That’s a relief.”
Sun Jin pursed his lips. “I bet you just want to know how Master is doing.”
Kanuen laughed and patted his cheek. “I’m truly happy that nothing has happened to you. You’re very important to Hou Dong. So, of course, I’ll care about you as well. How is he doing?”
Sun Jin couldn’t help but soften his attitude when Kanuen said something like that. Well, even though he didn’t have somebody, it was still nice for their Master to have somebody who cared so much about him. “He’s also doing well. I was the one who fought the most people! So there really is no reason to worry about him.”
Kanuen nodded indulgently. “It has to be like that. Well, let’s return then.” He looked around and raised his brows. “Did you only bring one horse?”
Sun Jin glanced at the horse next to him. “Yeah. That’s my horse, ah. Why would I bring another one?”
Kanuen looked from Sun Jin to his brother and then back to the horse. “Well, aren’t we three people?”
Sun Jin also looked at Piul and couldn’t help but gulp. Uh … That seemed about right. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Now, what should he do? Obviously, he couldn’t get onto the horse with his Master’s lover and ask the fierce beauty to walk by himself. Then even if he wasn’t killed on the spot, he would have hell to pay as soon as he got back to the village.
But at the same time, it was definitely out of the question to get onto the horse with the fierce beauty and have his Master’s lover walk. If he did that and his Master found out about it, wouldn’t he get into trouble after all?
In that case … Sun Jin looked at his horse with a heavy heart and patted its side. It seemed he could only let Kanuen and his brother ride on the horse while he walked. But this was his horse, ah! He should be allowed to ride on his own horse, shouldn’t he?
He felt himself to be quite pitiful but still stepped away from the animal and motioned at the other two. “Then … You get on. You can ride back and I’ll follow after you.”
Piul shot him a look that seemed to say that this was to be expected. He still huffed though. “How are we supposed to do that? I don’t know how to ride.”
Kanuen smiled and patted his brother’s shoulder. He also knew that Piul could be a little difficult to get along with for strangers but he wasn’t trying to be mean. He was just a little too direct sometimes and didn’t open up easily. “You don’t have to worry about that. I do know how to do it. So …”
He turned to Sun Jin, examining his expression. “Are you sure you’re alright with this? It’s your horse. It does mean a lot to you, doesn’t it?” At the very least, that was the impression he had gotten while traveling with Hou Dong and his men. These animals weren’t just some possession for them. They were an important part of their lives. Riding together with somebody was one thing but letting two other people onto their animal and not being able to watch while they did so was probably hard to stomach.
Piul had no idea what the horse meant to Sun Jin but he felt that his brother shouldn’t be made to walk. And anyway, how could some stranger just ride with his brother? Especially a fool like this. “What are you talking about? Didn’t he say it’s alright? Then let’s just get onto it. He won’t mind.”
Kanuen still took another look at Sun Jin’s face. Actually, he didn’t seem happy at all. He didn’t know what else to propose though. His brother wasn’t the type to give in after he had made a decision and considering the relationship between Sun Jin and Hou Dong, Hou Dong would be of the same opinion as his brother. It really was a tricky situation. Kanuen glanced at the horse and then carefully reached out, patting its neck. “Well, I do know how to ride but I’m not very familiar with this horse. Maybe Piul and I could get on and you could lead us back to the town?” That way, Sun Jin would at least be able to stay with them and have an eye on his horse.
Piul grabbed his brother’s sleeve and shook his head. “Where’s the sense in that? Don’t try to be nice to him. Since there is a horse, we should use it. Otherwise, we could all just walk.”
Kanuen smiled and patted Piul’s head. “Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. We’ve been traveling for the past few weeks. Wouldn’t it also be good to let the horse have some rest?”
Piul pursed his lips. “You’re being too nice.” He still grabbed Kanuen’s hand and turned around, pulling him along.
Behind them, Sun Jin looked at the horse and then followed them. He also felt that the Master’s lover was really nice. At the very least, he was much, much nicer than his brother. Unfortunately, he was already in love with their Master. There was nothing that could be done about that.
Anyway, he felt he hadn’t fulfilled his mission very good this time. Wouldn’t the Master worry if he didn’t bring Kanuen back fast? Then what if somebody came over and found out that although he had ridden here with Piul, they had walked back? If the others heard, he’d never live that down!
Sun Jin sped up and then thrust the reins into Kanuen’s hands. “It’s not a problem. You just get on and ride back. I’ll run after you.”
Kanuen looked at him and seeing the decisiveness in his eyes, he finally nodded. “Well, if that’s how you think, then I won’t say no.”
Sun Jin nodded and then stepped back, waiting for Kanuen to get onto the horse and then helping Piul up as well.
Piul looked at his brother and then motioned to the town. “Let’s hurry up! Everyone’s already waiting for you to come back.”
Kanuen still glanced at Sun Jin. “Is it really alright?”
Sun Jin nodded and tugged at his sleeves. “Well, I’ll trust you.” If it was only the fierce beauty, he might not do so but since this was the Master’s lover, it should be alright.
Kanuen nodded and gave him a smile. “Thank you, Sun Jin. Both for putting your trust in me and for protecting my brother.” He patted Piul’s head before he could say anything else and then grabbed the reins, returning to the town.
Even though he tried to find a compromise before, he also wanted to return as soon as possible. Seeing the rest of his family again and making sure with his very own eyes that they were alright was something he just had to do. And … There was also Hou Dong. He wanted to see if he had gotten hurt in that attack. He wouldn’t be able to really calm down before he hadn’t made sure that all the people he loved were alright.
The horse rushed through the forest and down the path right into the town as if it knew everyone else was waiting. Kanuen’s heart thumped loudly as if it wanted to match the galloping gait of the animal.
Kanuen sat up straighter and his eyes brushed over the crowd of people on the market square, finally stopping at Hou Dong who was standing at the side together with Shen Lei and Duan Bao. He didn’t seem hurt. He even gave Kanuen a small smile before he motioned over to the crowd.
Kanuen followed his nod with his gaze and spotted his parents together with his little sister. He heaved a sigh of relief and then got down from the horse, reaching up and taking Piul’s hand to help him down.
The townspeople around them had already started to talk excitedly, making Hou Dong quietly furrow his brows. The feeling that something wasn’t right about this grew even stronger. If they had sent Kanuen to get help for everyone, then they should have gotten excited once help arrived. But they hadn’t really cared about that. No, instead, they seemed excited that Kanuen himself was back. What did that mean? Was it just the happiness of reuniting with one of their own people? Or could it be that there was more to this?
He clenched his fists, scolding himself. Maybe he was being oversensitive. Maybe there wasn’t any more to this than the happiness that Kanuen had managed to flee from the leader of the bandits and still made it back alive. Maybe that was all and he was being too distrustful. If he wanted to have a future with Kanuen, then he had to get rid of that notion. Not everything was bad. He didn’t have to doubt the people around him. The kingdom of Sou wasn’t such a place. That was what Kanuen had told him and he should believe him.
Kanuen didn’t have time to think of his lover right now. He walked into the crowd, finally reuniting with his family. They hugged and he picked up his sister, gently patting her back when she started to cry and talking to her in a soothing voice. Ah, he was finally home! He didn’t want to leave again.
Kanuen sighed and glanced at the girl in his arms. This was his family. This town was the place where he had been born and grown up. He didn’t want to leave. But on the other hand … He glanced over to the edge of the square where Hou Dong was still standing with the others.
It hadn’t been long. The time they spent together couldn’t be compared to the time he had spent with any other person in his life. Still, he felt that he couldn’t leave this man either. It made him feel that he had a decision to make and one that would influence the rest of his life. It was one he didn’t dare to make lightly and if he could, he would like to push it off for as long as he could.
Maybe if he asked him, Hou Dong and his men would stay here for a while? Then regardless of what the future brought, they would be able to at least spend a little while together.
Kanuen pulled himself out of his thoughts and gave a smile to everyone around him. “Don’t be afraid. The danger is already over and I’ve returned. We can just go about our lives as usual from now on. I’m sure that we won’t be put into danger again anytime soon.”
The people nodded and then left, finally returning to their houses until only Kanuen and his family were left, as well as Hou Dong and his men who were watching from the side.
Kanuen glanced over but still stayed with his family.
His mother took his sister from him, trying to hold back tears. “You’re finally back! I was afraid you wouldn’t make it! Iana must’ve protected you and wanted you to return here.”
Kanuen gave a noncommittal smile but his gaze couldn’t help but shift to a place behind the town. Their god only ruled over this land. As soon as he left Sou, there was no way Iana would be able to protect him. He had also known that when he left.
Well, if Iana wouldn’t have wanted him to get into trouble, then those bandits wouldn’t have attacked their town. Wasn’t that so? So all of this had to be Iana’s plan for him. Maybe …
He glanced over at Hou Dong again and his lips curled into a smile. Even though Iana might not have any strength outside of Sou, that didn’t mean their god wouldn’t be able to see anything that happened there. Maybe Iana had known that this man would pass by that day. Maybe this was what Iana had chosen for him. If that was the case, then things would work out somehow.
His father clasped his hands, his eyes also swimming in tears. “We should go to the temple and make some offerings.”
Kanuen smiled wryly and then motioned to the edge of the square. “We should certainly go and make some offerings but … We still have guests. Don’t you think it would only be right to thank them first? They saved the town from the bandits so we should offer them a place to stay and food, right? They have a long journey behind them.”
His parents looked over and nodded hurriedly. “Sure, sure. Where should we put them?”
Kanuen glanced at Hou Dong and his men and then at the building next to them where the bandits had stayed before. The town wasn’t very big so this was the only building that would be able to accommodate all of them. “Why don’t you have them stay here? And you can ask everyone to provide them with a little food so it won’t make trouble for anyone but still get them fed.” He didn’t know is the bandits had made any demands that put a strain on the people’s living conditions but he didn’t feel it right for Hou Dong and his men to go hungry or make them need to go out and hunt for something to eat. After all, even if all of that had been their god’s plan, it had still been their hard work that made them defeat the bandits. They should be honored for that.
His parents nodded and his mother patted her husband’s arm. “Then why don’t you go and tell them to stay in the building while I go and ask the others for food?”
Kanuen’s father nodded and then looked at his son, asking for his opinion.
Kanuen glanced at Hou Dong again and shook his head. “Just ask for food from a few people for now. I don’t think they expect a big banquet to be laid out for them. Just having a bit to eat to fill their stomachs will be enough.”
Piul snorted. “If I look at how that idiot ate yesterday, I’m not sure you’re right about that.”
Their mother shook her head. “If Kanuen says it is that way, then we should trust that. I’ll go and tell the others. What about your father then?”
Kanuen just smiled. “Why don’t you take him along? Since I already know them, there’s no need to hold back. I can just go and tell them on my own.”
His mother glanced at the men standing at the edge of the square, her gaze worried. “Will it really be alright? What if …”
Kanuen shook his head. “They are very good people. Don’t worry about it. You should go now. It won’t get any earlier.”
His parents nodded and then left while Piul stayed next to him. His brother glanced at him and then looked over to the men that were waiting to the side. Obviously, Hou Dong’s gaze was different than it had been when the two of them met before.
Piul pursed his lips and then glanced at his brother, trying to ascertain what Kanuen himself felt. Seeing him smile sweetly, he stepped away. Anyway, the two of them had already spent some weeks together. What reason was there to get nervous now? When he turned around to go and help out his parents with setting up things, he came face to face with Sun Jin who had just made it back to the town. Both of them froze and Sun Jin mechanically turned to his Master. It was better he went over there and got his protection!
Seeing that that fool actually wanted to go over, Piul reached out and gripped his wrist, trying to pull him back.
Sun Jin froze. He wouldn’t have any problem to shake off the small person but he didn’t dare to move. If he did anything wrong, that person would just kick him again and he really didn’t know what he should do then. He didn’t think that he should get violent with somebody who couldn’t really defend themselves. That would be unfair. So he could only turn to Kanuen’s brother and look at him warily.
Piul huffed. “Where do you think you’re going, idiot? You come with me and help set up the place!”
Sun Jin scratched his head. “Which place?”
“The place where you’ll be staying! Which other place could I be talking about?” He pulled at his arm and Sun Jin finally stumbled after him, still not really knowing what was going on. Anyway, if the fierce little beauty needed his help, then he probably couldn’t get away.
Meanwhile, Kanuen walked over to Hou Dong. The other men made a strategic retreat, pretending to need to care for the others. Thus the only ones left at the edge of the square were Kanuen and Hou Dong.
They looked at each other, unspoken words in that gaze. There was some worry but for the most part, there was just happiness. They were alright. They had made it to the kingdom of Sou and they had driven off the bandits. Kanuen’s family was safe, the two of them were safe as well and neither of them was hurt. Everything had played out well.
In the end, it was Hou Dong who reached out and took Kanuen’s hand, gently playing with his fingers. “How does it feel to be back home?”
Kanuen glanced around before he looked back at Hou Dong. “Good. Slightly different.” Yes, he never would have thought that this could happen but after knowing Hou Dong, other things had changed as well. Or maybe it was that he had changed over the few weeks that he had been gone from this place. He didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t even need to know. But it was something that he just couldn’t help but notice.
Hou Dong nodded. “Slightly different, mn.” He felt that he could somewhat understand what Kanuen was saying even though their lives were completely different. Before this, he had always been traveling. They would return to Hua country every now and then, staying at the same place and visiting some relatives but for the most part, they were outside.
He had thought that maybe his home was where he and his men were at any given time. Being with the people he knew, traveling with his weapon tied to the saddle of his horse, experiencing the world outside … He thought that was all of his life. The only thing he needed, the only thing he wanted. But since falling in love with Kanuen he wasn’t too sure about that. Maybe his home was this place. Maybe his home was this person. Anyway, it really felt … slightly different.
Kanuen could imagine what Hou Dong was thinking when he saw his expression. He smiled sweetly and then tugged at his hand. “Alright, since you’re here, let me introduce you to everyone. You probably already saw my brother?”
Hou Dong glanced over to where Piul had been standing a moment before and nodded. “You didn’t lie about how pretty he is. But don’t worry. I still like you much more.” He kissed his cheek before he leaned back with a roguish smile.
He didn’t know what the future might bring but he was sure that he wouldn’t want to give this person up. No, he would somehow find a way to stay with him. Regardless of what that would mean. If he couldn’t continue to travel, then that would have to be the case. There were others who could lead his men and make sure that they stayed safe. And he was sure that they would also understand. After these few weeks, they already knew Kanuen. They also knew how much he meant to him. Even if they would be sad to lose him, they would be able to take it.
Kanuen nodded. “You’ve also seen our parents and my sister?”
Hou Dong nodded. “I did. Just shortly when you were talking with them though. I haven’t been able to exchange even a word with them.”
Kanuen nodded. “Well, when you do later, don’t worry too much. They are very open.”
Hou Dong nodded, appreciating that Kanuen took the time to tell him. He really was a little anxious about meeting them. That was the family of the person he wanted to marry, after all! He wanted to leave a good impression on them. “Well, everyone seemed to ignore us a little before so I don’t really know if we’re too welcome.”
Kanuen shook his head and stepped closer, grabbing Hou Dong’s other hand as well. “Don’t think too much. The life in Sou is different than in the other countries. The situation with the bandits … You’ve probably seen that the people here don’t fight back. They find their way to make peace with it and go about their life as usual. Whether you free them or not, they will be able to live on.”
Hou Dong’s lips parted, about to ask just why he left then but in the end, he held back. If he asked, wouldn’t he remind Kanuen of unpleasant things? After all, what the leader of the bandits had had in mind was exactly what he had almost suffered in the kingdom of Kai. That wasn’t anything he wanted to bring up ever again. As long as Kanuen didn’t indicate that he wanted to speak about it, he would keep quiet. Although he wanted to know, it wasn’t worth it.
Hou Dong smiled and just brought up something that was less risky. Even if he couldn’t find out what the answer to that particular question was, he had a thousand others. Actually, every little bit of information he could get about Kanuen’s life was valuable to him. He wanted to know everything. He wanted to be able to become a part of his life just like all the people here. “Will they be able to understand? I mean you speak my language and your brother and one of the other men of the town seem to do as well but the kingdom of Sou doesn’t have much contact with people outside, does it? Are they really all able to understand us?”
Kanuen nodded. “You don’t have to worry about that. Although we don’t have much contact right now, it was different in the past. We had some relations with a kingdom outside. That was why our people learned the language. We still do.”
Hou Dong raised his brows. Since the language they spoke was the language of Hua, did that mean that Sou and Hua had some relationship? Kanuen had never mentioned that but, well, he had never asked either. “So it was like that. I was wondering about that.”
Kanuen nodded and craned his neck, giving Hou Dong a peck on the lips. “If there’s something you want to know, you can just ask. Anyway, let’s settle your men first. I sent my parents off to ask for a bit of food so you’ll be able to finally eat something more than just dry rations. I think I heard that your men weren’t too happy with that.”
Hou Dong nodded and interlaced their fingers. “I’m pretty sure that idiot Sun Jin will have taken advantage of that yesterday. I hope your family wasn’t left with a bad impression.”
Kanuen laughed while he pulled him over towards the building on the other side of the square. “Well, Piul seems to be a bit unhappy with him but that’s not a wonder. He has a bit of a temper. As for my parents, I don’t think they mind too much. We’re doing well here so that bit of food won’t make a difference. Furthermore, you’ve also saved us. What is there to be angry about?”
Hou Dong nodded and reluctantly waved at his men. Ah, there was something he hadn’t thought about: Since they were in Kanuen’s hometown now, he’d probably have to stay here with his men and wouldn’t be able to spend the night with Kanuen. That really was a pity. Well, but since his in-laws weren’t that far away he really couldn’t raise a fuss about that, could he?
Hou Dong’s men filed into the building one after the other, shooting glances at their Master and his lover. Would their displays of affection continue here now? Or would their Master actually move in with the beauty?
They couldn’t help but exchange glances, some of their eyes sparkling with anticipation. Actually, maybe they should do some bets. When would they ever get such an opportunity again? Well, not considering what happened about staying where, there would also be a wedding coming up. Maybe they could bet on when that would be held?
They whispered among each other while they moved into the house, talking about the odds and placing bets. The majority was of the opinion that the wedding would happen right this week with some more careful ones advocating for it happening in the following two weeks. There were some daring ones though that guessed that it wouldn’t take longer than three days.
Even if they wanted to, Kanuen and Hou Dong weren’t able not to hear what the men were talking about. Hou Dong gave an embarrassed smile and squeeze Kanuen’s hand. “Don’t listen to them. If you want to marry me, then we’ll marry. And we’ll do it at the pace that you’re alright with. There’s no need to rush.”
Kanuen nodded and sat down with Hou Dong while they waited for the others to arrive with the food. “Thank you. That means a lot to me that you’re willing to wait.” He didn’t feel like letting Hou Dong wait for too long though. The sooner he decided, the sooner Hou Dong would also decide how to proceed with his life from now on, wouldn’t he? And Kanuen felt that he really needed an answer to that question.
He wanted to be with this man but he didn’t know if he would be able to wait months on end for him to return from his travels. Right now, he couldn’t imagine it. Then again, he also didn’t want to leave the town, neither did he want to give up on Hou Dong himself. It was hard to say what to do.
Even though they both had things they wanted to talk about, they still held back. It was only a matter of time until the townspeople with the food would arrive and Hou Dong’s men would gather to eat. They would be interrupted as soon as they could start so it was better to wait a while longer and then talk about everything at once.
It indeed didn’t take long for the other men to return and sit down at the tables that the bandits had occupied not too long ago. Some of them couldn’t resist making jokes about it.
Hou Dong felt embarrassed looking at Kanuen when the others talked about this kind of thing but he could hardly tell them to shut up. Anyway, Kanuen already knew them well enough to understand that they were always like this but didn’t mean anything bad by it.
Kanuen just smiled and gently held his hand, admiring the lines he had already grown used to in the last few weeks. “They’re your family. Just like Piul and our sister and our parents are mine. You might also find them a little ridiculous at times. But I’m sure that we can look over that kind of thing and be a happy family together.”
Hou Dong nodded, watching those gentle fingers touching his hand. Yes, they probably could do that. He certainly wanted that kind of future.
Just when he wanted to say some sappy words to convey his feelings to his lover, Kanuen’s family stepped through the door together with Sun Jin and some other people and brought in the food. Hou Dong’s men leaped up in excitement and rushed over, pretending to help them while actually just added to the chaos.
Hou Dong sighed and called them back to order before he got up himself to meet Kanuen’s family. Now, it should be a good moment, shouldn’t it? He glanced at Kanuen and his lover also got up, taking his hand again before he pulled him to his family. Yes, now was the time.