Even though their conversation couldn’t change anything, Kanuen calmed down afterward. He had lived all of his life with the belief that whatever happened had a reason and would somehow lead to the right path.
Even though he couldn’t understand why Iana didn’t want to speak to him any longer, he had to accept this fact for the time being. Maybe it would stay this way for the rest of his life or maybe it would only continue for a while as Hou Dong had suggested. He didn’t know and there was no way to make sure. He could only go about his life as usual and do what he felt was right.
In a way, it might not be too bad. After all, other than in the few weeks that he had spent outside of Sou, he had never had to deal with this kind of situation. Needing to make his own choices, that might also do him good. He couldn’t always just rely on their god.
Thus Kanuen and Hou Dong left the temple that day and went back to bed, afterward going about their lives as if nothing had changed at all. Kanuen refused to guide the other townspeople for the time being with the excuse that he first needed to settle down again while he accompanied Hou Dong in exploring the town and its vicinity.
A day went by, then three, finally a whole week and Hou Dong’s men started to grow impatient. What was going on? They had been sure that their Master and Kanuen would get married very soon. After all, they had been acting especially close after they had left Kai. It had been difficult to separate them for even a moment despite the danger of being discovered by the merchants. So how come they were not married yet despite still acting like that? They were losing their bets here, alright?!
Hou Dong didn’t bother about their increasingly puzzled gazes. To him, it wasn’t important when exactly he married Kanuen. He only wanted his lover to be able to regain his confidence despite all the things that had happened. Afterward, they would be able to talk about marriage. But until then … No, right now just wasn’t the time. They should wait a while longer and then see how things were going.
In that manner, yet another week went by without any talk about the marriage coming up. Hou Dong’s men had all lost their wagers but they didn’t care about that any longer. If everybody lost, then nobody would win, and in the end, everybody would just keep their own money. What worried them much more was what would happen to their Master. Don’t tell them Kanuen wasn’t willing to marry him anymore? How could that be!
Thus, one morning, they lingered around the house of Kanuen’s family and then jumped the two of them as soon as the door opened. “Master, let’s have a talk!”
Hou Dong was dragged away, shooting Kanuen an alarmed look. His lover just raised his brows and laughed. He knew Hou Dong’s men good enough to understand that they must have something to discuss with him that he wasn’t supposed to hear. If Hou Dong wanted to, he’d tell him after he came back. If not … Well, his lover could have some secrets. Not everything needed to be shared.
Thus he went back inside, waiting for Hou Dong to return. Whatever it was that his men wanted, it shouldn’t take too long and even if it did, it wasn’t like they needed to go somewhere urgently. For today, he had only promised Hou Dong to go and show him some of the places where he had played while growing up. That could still be done tomorrow.
While Kanuen returned to his room, Hou Dong furrowed his brows and stared at his men. “What do you think you’re doing?” His men had dragged him to the building where they were currently staying, half of them sitting down at the tables while the rest had circled him. If he didn’t know them, he might be afraid he would get beaten up any moment now.
“Master!” Sun Jin grabbed Hou Dong’s arm and wailed.
Hou Dong tried to shake him off but that damned bastard had latched onto him too tightly. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Sun Jin looked at him with a pitying expression. “Did you get into trouble with Kanuen’s family?”
“What? No!” Hou Dong looked from Sun Jin’s face to the others whose expressions only looked slightly better. “What are the lot of you thinking? Why would I have gotten in trouble with Kanuen’s family?”
Duan Bao sighed and stepped forward, throwing Sun Jin an angry look. “Don’t get angry. We’re just a little worried. We’ve been traveling for a while and the two of you seemed to get along really well. But now we’ve been here for two weeks. All the bandits are dead, we’ve made sure that nobody has managed to stay alive and hide somewhere in the vicinity. Everything is great, isn’t it?
“So why does nothing seem to happen between the two of you? Didn’t you want to get married? I remember we heard you talking about it while we were traveling. He doesn’t want to back out, does he?”
Hou Dong looked at his men who seemed genuinely worried about him and sighed. “I really want to get angry at you for pulling this stunt but I guess you were just trying to be nice.”
Duan Bao tsked. “We weren’t just trying to be nice. Obviously, we are! So what is it? Is there something that keeps you from getting married? Some custom of Sou? Just talk to us! We can help you figure something out.”
Hou Dong sighed and went to sit down with them, trying to dispel the awkwardness as good as he could. He didn’t know what exactly to say. His men had already found out that Kanuen was a priest by now and he could imagine that that might also have something to do with their worry right now. After all, they didn’t know what exactly being a priest entailed in Sou. “It’s not any customs.”
His men heaved a collective sigh of relief, confirming what he had thought before.
So that had been an issue in the end. He shook his head, wondering why they hadn’t spoken up earlier. “Honestly, it’s nothing too serious. It’s just that …” He thought back to the day when he had talked things through with Kanuen in the temple and could only smile wryly.
He didn’t feel that it would be a good idea to bring this up. If he wasn’t wrong, Kanuen hadn’t even told his family about this issue with their god so far. In that case, he couldn’t just tell his men about it. He was sure that none of them would go and blab about it but it just wasn’t the right thing to do. If Kanuen wanted to keep it a secret, then as his partner, he should respect that choice. Nobody should be an exception to that. “I guess you could say it’s just been a little too much in the past. I mean the circumstances we met under …”
Sun Jin leaned closer, his face clearly showing some irritation. “But it’s not something you can change!”
Hou Dong scoffed. “Of course it isn’t! I also know that. But it’s just that we need a bit more time. Kanuen has gone through a lot on this journey. Now he’s just gotten home. Two weeks might seem like a lot to you guys but it’s not. He’s just feeling like he’s getting his life back under control again. I don’t mind either. He can have as much time as he wants to. I mean whether we’re married or not, I’m still at his side, am I not? So what’s the hurry?”
Sun Jin took a long look at him. “You really don’t mind?”
Hou Dong shook his head. “I don’t. It’s alright as long as he’s happy. Everything else … We can think about that in the future.”
The other men nodded and Duan Bao patted his shoulder. “He’ll get over it soon. I’m sure of that. Kanuen is really calm. He will be able to deal with it sooner or later. Don’t worry.”
Hou Dong laughed. “I wasn’t the one who was worried though. That was you guys. Actually, what’s up with that? Is this one of those instances where the emperor is calm but the eunuchs are worried?” He laughed again and got up while still shaking his head. “Honestly, don’t think too much. I’m not worried at all. I’m just happy that he’s so open about these things with me. I’d much rather he tells me if he’s feeling uncomfortable than to tough it out on his own.” Although … He wasn’t so sure if Kanuen would have told him had he not coincidentally noticed him leaving the house and going to the temple that day. Well, there was nothing he could do about that.
Actually, it might really be that they didn’t know each other long enough. Trust needed to grow and although he felt that they had already made a lot of progress on that front, it might not be enough yet. Taking more time was the right choice.
Hou Dong stood in front of his men, his gaze getting slightly nostalgic while he glanced over these faces that he knew all too well. “I guess since we’re already talking about it, there’s something else I have to say.”
The men turned quiet, their expressions grave. They could imagine just what it was that Hou Dong had to say.
“I’ve always loved our Hua country but it wasn’t to the point that I wasn’t willing to leave. Kanuen is different though. He loves this place. It’s important to him and he’s important to the people here. I don’t think that it would work out if he left. So … I’ll be staying with him. I’m thinking of bringing him to Hua one day so he can meet my family but that’ll be it. Afterward, we’ll be spending our time here.
“So the lot of you … You’ll have to travel on your own from now on. Don’t be mad at me for this. I … I’ve always loved traveling with you. This was my life. But I’m afraid that now that Kanuen is in the picture, there’s no way I can do that any longer.”
His men kept quiet for a moment, some even lowering their heads. They had all thought that this might happen but they hadn’t thought that they’d need to say goodbye this soon.
The first one to calm himself was Shen Ling. He gave a wry smile, got up and pulled Hou Dong into a hug, patting his back. “Why would we be mad at you for that? You found yourself a beauty, Sou is also a good place. It’s better than traveling with a bunch of smelly men, isn’t it? Who could be mad at you for that?”
Hou Dong forced himself to nod. “That’s right. I’d much rather be with the beautiful Sou people every day then to have to see your ugly mugs. I’d be in an idiot if I decided on anything else!”
Shen Ling nodded and stepped away, taking a long look at him. “Yeah, if this was me, I’d do the very same thing. That’s the best decision you can make.”
The other men mumbled something about how he was right and that they should also have a look around to see if there wasn’t some other beauty around they could marry themselves. It was a pity that Kanuen’s family seemed to have the most beautiful people and marrying one of his siblings wasn’t an option if their Master had already become a member of the family. How awkward would that be?
The one who finally couldn’t take it anymore was Sun Jin. He got up and also pulled Hou Dong into a hug but he didn’t manage to get any words out. He just stood there, clinging to him and looking depressed.
Hou Dong sighed. He didn’t worry about anybody other than this idiot. For the most part, he had known these men his whole life. They had grown up together or at least met early on while they traveled. Only very few of them had joined them later on but when they did, they had been old enough to be already called grown men.
Sun Jin was different. They had picked him up when he had been nothing more than a youth. He didn’t have any family. No, it should better be said that he didn’t have any blood-related family. To him, Hou Dong and his men had always been his family. So when something happened to one of them, he was always the one who was hit the hardest.
Hou Dong felt bad about putting Sun Jin through this again. If he could, he’d make sure that all of them stayed together forever, just so that he could have that family he wished for. Unfortunately, life didn’t always go the way you wanted.
Hou Dong hugged him back and closed his eyes, gently patting his back. “It’s not like I’ve dropped dead. I’ll just be enjoying my life over here. If something happens, you can always come over and ask for my help. You can also come and visit us when you’re passing by. Don’t think too much. We’re not out of the world. If you look on the bright side, it’s not that you’ll lose me. It’s that you’ll gain a beautiful brother-in-law. Isn’t that great?”
Sun Jin furrowed his brows and gulped. “Then why isn’t that brother-in-law coming with us?”
Hou Dong sighed. “This isn’t his life. You also know that.”
“But how is living in a small town your life?! It’s not fair!”
Hou Dong reached up and ruffled Sun Jin’s hair. “Life is never fair. One of us will have to compromise. And if I imagine putting Kanuen into danger, then I think it’s still better this way. I’m sorry. It’s not that I want to leave you. It’s just that I feel that this is the best I can do in this situation.”
Sun Jin looked at him accusingly, his eyes clearly red.
Hou Dong gave an awkward smile and patted his head before he let go. “You’ll still have lots of fun with the others. And I’ll be here if you need me. And if you one day you find someone that you like as well, then I’ll be there to support you.”
Sun Jin nodded but he obviously wasn’t happy about it. If he could, he would certainly try to make him change his mind.
Hou Dong patted his shoulder and then turned to the others. “Well, I don’t think it’ll be a problem if you stayed here for a while longer. So there’s no need to look as if you’d have to say goodbye right now.”
Shen Ling shook his head. “You’re so awkward, pretending that everything is alright. They might not say anything but it’s not a good idea and you know that. They’ve put up with us for two weeks already. And they had to put up with the bandits before that. Even if they have grain reserves, it’ll be hard for them to get by when winter arrives. We should leave as soon as possible. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.”
Hou Dong sighed and nodded. “I’m afraid you’re right about that. I guess this is almost goodbye then.”
His men fell quiet once again and Sun Jin sat down with them, joining into the silence.
Hou Dong looked at all of them and then smiled. “Alright, use a few days to pack up. We’ll have a real farewell. I won’t let you get away with just this.”
His men nodded with heavy hearts. “Yeah! You better make this worthwhile for us. If you aren’t organizing at least a little feast, then we’ll have to think you don’t care about us at all.”
“Exactly! You should get your new family to take out some booze for us!”
“And some local specialties! Don’t think you can skimp on our food! We’ve always had to almost starve ourselves to death when we were traveling with you. Now that you’re going to leave, the good life is waiting for us. Give us a taste of that!”
“Mn!” Needless to say, the one who didn’t get a word out at this moment, was none other than Sun Jin. He could only hope that life would be better when their Master wasn’t around. It was still sad though. He would’ve liked it much better if Hou Dong and Kanuen had traveled with them. He wouldn’t mind slowing down either.
There was a lot that could be done for a beautiful brother-in-law. Even if they wouldn’t fight with bandits and stuff anymore. He didn’t mind. They could even become a band of merchants or something. It would be alright as long as they were together.
Hou Dong sighed and patted the idiot’s head. “You’ll get all of that. Even if I need to go and hunt everything personally for you. Didn’t you want a snake from the desert? I’ll go and catch one with my bare hands!”
Sun Jin looked up and pursed his lips. “You better don’t. If you died because it was poisonous, then wouldn’t Kanuen’s brother beat me up? I’m still too young to die.”
Hou Dong laughed. “Alright, alright. Then no snake for you. You can try that when you’re out with the others.” He patted his shoulder again and took one last look at his men. “I guess I’ll go and organize everything then.” The others nodded and Hou Dong left the building, going back to Kanuen’s house.
His expression couldn’t help but fall as soon as he was through the door. Even though he wouldn’t say it outright, he also felt that it was a pity. As much as he loved Kanuen, giving up the life that he had led for so many years wasn’t easy at all. If there was a way to have both, he would take that one.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t. He had to choose and all things considered, he felt that it would be better to stay with Kanuen. Anyway, he also wasn’t getting younger. How many years would he have been able to lead this kind of lifestyle?
At the very least, that was what he told himself.
Hou Dong took a deep breath before he stepped into Kanuen’s room and gave a light smile when his lover turned around to him.
Kanuen gazed at him, getting up from where he had been kneeling in front of the small altar and walked over, carefully hugging him. “They want to leave?”
Hou Dong’s gaze flickered and he hugged Kanuen back. “What? Your god wouldn’t have started talking to you again, would he?”
Kanuen shook his head. “No, it’s just … You seemed really lost. I couldn’t imagine anything else that might have caused that.” He leaned back, cupping Hou Dong’s cheeks and looking into his eyes. “If you cannot stay here, then that is alright. I would not mind accompanying you. Since I’m not a real priest anymore, it isn’t like I play a big role in Sou anymore. I’m just a normal person now. It would be alright to leave.”
Hou Dong pulled him back into his arms, taking a deep breath to calm down before he spoke up. “It means a lot to me that you said that. But it’s not just traveling. The part of the way that you accompanied us on was nothing compared to the other things we’ve been through. Nothing really happened. There was never a danger to me or my men. It was just those merchants having their eyes on you.
“But it’s not always like that. There would be fights and skirmishes and a lot of dangerous situations. Even if you don’t mind, I wouldn’t be able to keep my calm. That wouldn’t be good for you or me or my men. Stepping back is the right thing to do. I also know that. And they will be able to accept it as well.”
Kanuen rubbed his back, trying to comfort him a little. “I’m afraid I don’t understand that.”
Hou Dong sighed and glanced at the altar at the side. There were things they didn’t understand about each other. Back when it was him, Kanuen had to try to explain to him. He should probably do the same now. It was surprisingly hard though. The things that were obvious to him and his men, Kanuen couldn’t understand. But he wasn’t sure if he would be able to put them into words.
“I don’t know how to say this. Just … Think back to the things that happened in Kai. We had planned everything from the beginning. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if the merchants had taken you away without me knowing? Do you believe I would have hesitated to go and save you?
“I wouldn’t. But then I might put my men into danger. And regardless of how much I love you, one person’s life against that of more than one dozen people … Sometimes it’s that one person you have to give up. But if I was in love, I would not be able to do that. I might make stupid decisions. And then the ones who would have to pay the price for that would be my men. So I can’t lead them any longer. Not with you in the picture.”
Kanuen glanced up, giving a nod. “That, I can understand. But wouldn’t it be alright as long as somebody else was in charge of them? Couldn’t you just be like the others? Traveling with them but not leading them?”
Hou Dong gave a wry smile. “It’s not as easy as you imagine. Since the day we started this, it was always me who made the decisions. Even though I’ve always treated them as equals, letting them speak up if they felt that I was doing something wrong, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t used to me giving commands. They see me as their leader. That’s not something you can make them forget with just a few words. Even if we talked about it and chose somebody else to make the decisions from now on, they would still look at me and we’d be in the same situation again. It just wouldn’t work out.” He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s not talk about it any longer, alright?” It was hard enough to accept. If Kanuen continued to try and find a way for him to have everything he wanted, then it would only get harder for him to let go of this life. And he couldn’t waver. Not on this.
Kanuen nodded. “You know more about this than I. If you say it can’t be done, then it can’t be done. I just don’t want you to be unhappy because of me.”
“I’m not. Well, I’m not happy either that I won’t be able to see them any longer. But this is one of these moments in life where a decision has to be made. And I decided on you. That’s alright with me. I don’t resent this. I just want to make sure that I’ll be a good husband for you in the future. So now, I have to bid them farewell. They will stay for a few more days and then …”
Kanuen nodded. “You want to send them off?”
“I do. Could we …”
Kanuen gave another nod and smiled. “Of course. Even though the people here might not show it outright but they are also happy that the bandits are gone. Just because we accept things, doesn’t mean that we’re always happy about them. They’ll be glad that there’s something they can do to show their appreciation.”
Kanuen cupped his lover’s cheeks with his hands and gave him a kiss. “There’s no need to thank me. This is what I should do. Other than you, your men have also helped me a lot. And they have freed my hometown. Also … They are the people that are the most important to you. From what I’ve seen I feel that you regard them as your family. In that case, they’re my family as well. And family should be treated well.”
Hou Dong nodded. “They are. They’re … I’m closer to them than I am to my actual family. Maybe you find that weird. But that is the way it has been for a long time. I guess that’s just what happens if you spent so many years with the same people, having to trust each other in life and death. Anyway, it makes me happy that you’re willing to treat them just as well as I.”
“It’s a given. So let’s go prepare. Maybe doing this will also help you forget about the pain a bit.”
Hou Dong nodded and gave Kanuen another tight hug. “You know if I was alone, this would be even worse. But since you’re here, I feel that I’m able to get through this somehow. It still hurts that I won’t see them for a long time and that I won’t have them around anymore but I can live with that as long as there is you.”
“You’ll see them again. Considering how I have gotten to know them in the last few weeks, I’m sure that they’ll drop by every so often. Maybe you’ll even see them more often than you’d like to.”
Hou Dong gave a laugh. “Well, that might indeed be the case.” He took a deep breath and relaxed his tight grasp around Kanuen’s waist. “Alright, you’ve succeeded. I’m already feeling better. So let’s go and get this over with, yes?”
Kanuen nodded and then took his lover’s hand, pulling him outside. If they wanted to prepare a feast, then there were a lot of things to organize. He didn’t want Hou Dong to have any regrets and he wanted to make sure that the others would know that they were always welcome in Sou. They were family. To Hou Dong, to him and to the rest of the townspeople here. As long as they knew that, they would have a reason to return.