Just as Hou Dong had said, Shen Ling led his men back toward Kai. They didn’t enter the same border town as they had last time though and instead went to another small dwelling not far from it. Needless to say, news had already traveled so it wasn’t a problem at all to inquire about what had happened after they left.
Just as they had planned, the merchants had returned to Kai after they had been robbed, hoping to hire some mercenary group that would bring them back to Hua. Before they were able to find one, a very unhappy group of personal guards appeared in front of them though.
The rich guy they had sold Kanuen to still thought that they were behind his humiliating experience. Naturally, he wasn’t pleased to hear that they had dared to come back. These people didn’t take him seriously at all! If he didn’t teach them a lesson, he would never be able to lift his head again in Kai. After all, it was only thanks to the person backing him that he had been able to make sure that the matter wasn’t circulated widely. But if he didn’t teach these merchants a lesson, then even this connection wouldn’t save him from becoming a laughing stock.
Thus, as soon as the news traveled to him that these people had dared to step foot into his town just a few weeks after the matter, he sent over his people and had them apprehended. The servants that the merchants had brought with them were taken away and made into his own while the people he considered to be the brains behind the whole plan suffered even harsher.
As for what exactly happened … Most people didn’t dare to speak about it while some would whisper behind closed doors if they had just drunk enough. There was talk about torture and them being sold off into slavery themselves while some people even hinted that the truth of the matter was even worse. Most likely, it was impossible to find out what had really happened if one hadn’t been there. Still, it was without a question that the rich man had dealt with the merchants harshly.
Hou Dong’s men were satisfied with that result even though they felt that it was a pity that the guy himself had gotten off that lightly. If they could, they really would’ve liked to make trouble for him again but they didn’t dare to do so right now. The matter hadn’t passed for long enough and they didn’t have Hou Dong with them anymore. They should wait until they had gathered their spirits again and then think about it in the future. Thus they set off again and went to search for their next adventure.
Back in Sou, Hou Dong and Kanuen talked about what the others might be experiencing every now and then but for the most part, they went about their own life. Hou Dong did as he had said and started to learn the language of Sou, making not only Kanuen but also the rest of his family and all the other townspeople teach him slowly but surely. With each passing week, he understood more of what was being said when he walked through the streets and he managed to get closer to the other townspeople as well.
He felt that even though it wasn’t always easy, his life was falling into place again. And even though he often missed the others, it was bearable and he noticed that even life in a small town like this wasn’t too bad. After all, he had Kanuen and a task at hand. Sure, he sometimes missed the excitement of his travels but he was experiencing so many new things that he hardly had time to think about it.
In that way, several months passed and the day when the shooting stars would cover the night sky was drawing near. Hou Dong had done as he had promised Kanuen in that drunken night and looked at the sky every night but up until now, there hadn’t been even a single shooting star to be seen.
It really made him sigh with pity. Waiting to finally call Kanuen his forever wasn’t that easy. If he could, he would’ve loved to do it immediately. But the longer he waited, the more he felt that Kanuen had made a wise decision. If he was honest with himself, then they hadn’t been ready just after they came back from traveling. There had been too many things weighing on Kanuen’s mind and he himself had needed to make an important decision. At that time, it just wouldn’t have been right to take the step. No, it was better to do it now that everything had calmed down.
Kanuen was in a much better state of mind now. He had accepted that he might not be able to ever hear Iana’s voice again but he was able to live with it. He had also managed to make some progress concerning the things that had happened outside of Sou. Even though he would never be able to forget and there were still many nights when he would wake up from nightmares, it wasn’t influencing him as much anymore. He still hadn’t been able to talk about it with even his brother but that probably wasn’t something he had ever done. So the fact that he couldn’t do so now wasn’t surprising at all.
Hou Dong didn’t try to rush him. This type of thing needed time. Most likely, it would need a lot of time and maybe, there would forever be a scar from that incident. That was a regret he himself had. Thinking back now, he shouldn’t have allowed this. But it was already too late and he could only promise himself that he would never let Kanuen suffer like this again. Well, at the very least, his lover didn’t blame him.
The day of the shooting stars finally came. Piul had given Hou Dong ample warning so he had had time to find the best spot for what he had planned. Thus, that morning, Hou Dong tightened his grasp around Kanuen’s body while they were still lying in bed and then kissed his cheek to wake him up.
A light sigh escaped Kanuen’s lips before his eyelids fluttered open and he turned his head to glance at his lover.
"Good morning. How did you sleep?"
Kanuen smiled and reached up, brushing Hou Dong’s cheek with his fingertips. "Very well, until somebody woke me up. Did something happen?"
Hou Dong chuckled and gave him another kiss, this time on the lips. "I woke up and there was a beauty lying next to me. I was afraid it might be a mirage so I couldn’t help but want to make sure. Turns out the beauty’s real."
Kanuen laughed and turned in his arms, wrapping his own around Hou Dong’s neck. "It’s good you made sure. It wouldn’t be good to indulge in such wild fantasies."
Hou Dong nodded. "It’s always better to indulge in real life. So how about it? Do you want to do something nice today?"
"Something nice? Like what?"
Hou Dong pursed his lips as if in thought. "I don’t know. We could go out and take a walk. Or maybe … You’d like to go to the lake and have a swim?"
Kanuen smiled. "It’s a nice idea. Actually, I don’t care what it is as long as we are together."
Hou Dong grinned and leaned closer, giving him a kiss. "You have no idea how happy I am."
Kanuen brushed through Hou Dong’s hair with his fingers. "I don’t. But if you’re just half as happy as I am, then you’re already very happy."
Hou Dong laughed and pulled him closer, kissing him once again. "You should be right about that. Well, how about getting up to eat something and then slowly start into the day? I could also surprise you."
"Is it still a surprise if you already told me that there would be something?" Despite saying though, Kanuen got up and climbed over Hou Dong’s body, washing up and putting on his clothes. "I’m curious to see what you’re going to come up with though."
Hou Dong continued to lie there for a moment, propping his head up on his arm and watching Kanuen busy around. "Let me think deeply about that. Such a beautiful person definitely can’t be disappointed by me."
"You shouldn’t disappoint me even if I was ugly."
Hou Dong hummed and then got up, walking over and pulling him into his arms. "I shouldn’t. But you know what? I love you. So you’ll always be the most beautiful person in my eyes."
Kanuen shook his head and kissed his cheek again, finally pushing him away. "You, sweet-talker, ah. You’d better go and get dressed."
Hou Dong nodded and did as he was told, quietly humming to himself. Ah, just thinking that today was the day that would finally decide on their wedding … Ah, he could hardly wait for nightfall. And if he considered that he still had to wait three days … Well, who knew what needed to be prepared for a wedding in Sou? He had never dared to ask about that since he didn’t want to seem too eager and give his plan away beforehand. So it seemed he could only wait until tonight to bring the matter up and then ask about the details later.
The two of them went down and made breakfast, sitting down together and starting to eat slowly, a warm atmosphere enveloping them. Even though they hadn’t married yet, the life they led wasn’t much different from a married couple. The only thing still missing was a ritual and the titles attached to them.
Soon, Piul also got up and joined the two of them, idly talking and passing time in that way. Only when he had left, did Hou Dong turn to Kanuen, brushing his hair to the back and kissing his cheek. "Then I guess I’ll go and prepare everything?"
Kanuen nodded and slipped out of his grasp. "You can do that. I’ll go to the temple then."
Hou Dong nodded and also got up, following him out of the house. Even though Kanuen had stopped hearing Iana’s voice, it didn’t mean that he would stop believing in this god of his. He still went to the temple daily, praying like other people normally did without ever receiving a response.
Knowing that that was where Kanuen wanted to go, Hou Dong was satisfied. It was one of the places where Kanuen was able to spend a lot of time. That way, he wouldn’t need to feel guilty about spending a lot of time to prepare everything. He could slowly do so and then they could go over in the afternoon. It wouldn’t be too bad. That way, they could spend some leisurely hours before the shooting stars would finally fall. This had worked out pretty well.
In front of the door, the two of them embraced and shared another kiss before Kanuen stepped back and then went to the temple. Hou Dong watched him leave and then went back inside, getting the bag he had brought to Sou from his travels.
He had never owned much since he had always been on the road and everything he had fit neatly into this bag. He slung it over his shoulder and then left the house again, slipping over to the stable where his horse stood. He saddled it without hurry and strapped the bag to it before he rode out of the town in the direction of the lake he had mentioned before.
This place was a little hidden from view by a row of trees and on one side, a small hill rose up. If one sat up there, they could see the glittering water and the lush greenery around. It was an idyllic place and one that would be especially suited to view the shooting stars.
Hou Dong smiled to himself and got down from the horse. He took the bag from the saddle, slung it over his shoulder and rushed up the hill. He looked around, making sure once again that this place was really suitable.
Taking a deep breath, he nodded to himself. Kanuen should love this. Considering everything he had seen, his lover liked nature. Being proposed to again in the wilderness … it should fit his taste. And maybe it would even remind him of the time they had spent traveling before.
Satisfied, Hou Dong bent down and took a blanket out of the bag. He spread it on the grass and then put up his tent behind it. If it started to rain or if they wanted to retire for the night, they could just go inside and spend their time there. It would be a pity not to be able to see the sky and the lake but he’d rather be prepared for everything. In the worst case, he would just open the flap so that they could still see a bit outside.
Thinking of that, Hou Dong finished putting up the tent and even prepared for that chance. He looked at it and nodded again. Now, he would only need some food to finish things up. This would be the part that took the most time. Obviously, he could have asked somebody from the town for help but he felt that this was something he had to do himself. After all, today was a special day. He wanted to show Kanuen that he had decided on the right man and that he would be able to care for him in the future. Thus he went down the hill again to get his horse and then rode into the forest, going to hunt.
When Kanuen returned from the temple a few hours later, nothing could be seen of Hou Dong. He raised his brows and then left the house again, going to help out around town. Since he wasn’t a real priest anymore, he felt that he should make himself useful in another way. Anyway, he felt that he was pretty good with children so he normally took care of them while their parents worked. He hadn’t learned anything else either so this was probably the only option he had.
Another hour went by until Hou Dong finally returned. There was a happy smile on his lips and he swooped Kanuen up into his arms immediately, giving him a resounding smack on the lips. "Did you miss me?"
Kanuen laughed and patted his lover’s chest. "You took so long, if I didn’t miss you, I couldn’t say that I loved you without a bad conscience."
Hou Dong chuckled and then grabbed his hand, squeezing it lightly while a half-nervous and half-expectant smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Well, I prepared everything. Do you want to go now?"
Kanuen looked at the others but the women just waved at him, shooing them off. Anyway, they didn’t want to get in the way of their priest and his lover.
Kanuen finally nodded and followed Hou Dong out of the town and toward the hill. He could already see the tent on top and raised his brows. "I guess that is what you’ve prepared?" He wasn’t sure what to expect. Seeing this tent that they had spent the first few weeks in together after they got to know each other, his heartbeat sped up and he couldn’t help but remember all the conversations they had had in there. Relieving this kind of memory here in Sou would make him happy but on the other hand, he couldn’t help but wonder if Hou Dong was also doing this because he missed the others. If that was the case … he should do his utmost to help distract him. He wanted him to be happy, after all.
Hou Dong nodded. "It’s not all that I prepared though. Come on up." He tugged on Kanuen’s hand and the two of them ran up the hill, only stopping next to the blanket that was spread on the ground.
Kanuen once again raised his brows. This certainly was unexpected. "I guess this should be the surprise now, shouldn’t it?"
Hou Dong nodded his head. "It is. Well, it’s supposed to be. So are you surprised?"
Kanuen looked at the blanket and the tent and then back at Hou Dong. "That depends. What are we going to do?"
Hou Dong gripped his hand and pulled him onto the blanket, sitting down. "Spend the afternoon at a beautiful spot, just the two of us, and then camp beneath the stars. What do you say? Good enough?"
Kanuen nodded and snuggled up against Hou Dong, looking out at the lake below. "More than enough. You’ve really done a lot."
Hou Dong leaned down and kissed his lover’s hair. "I would be willing to do anything for you." He brushed through Kanuen’s hair with his fingers and also looked at the lake, quietly enjoying the moment. Embracing his lover, feeling the warm breeze on their skin … What could be more beautiful?
Hou Dong couldn’t help but think that soon enough, they would be even closer. It made his heart beat wildly.
Kanuen raised his eyebrows. Since he was leaning against him, he had no trouble feeling his lover’s quickened heartbeat. He glanced at him but Hou Dong just gave him a smile and then leaned down, kissing him.
"Do you like it?"
Kanuen continued to look at him, wondering what this might be about. Surprise … Was this the day when he would finally bring up their marriage again? To be honest, he had been waiting for it for a while now. After all, Hou Dong had pretty much settled down in their town. There was no need to wait any longer.
In the end, he just nodded, not asking anything. Obviously, Hou Dong had prepared so much. He didn’t want to accidentally spoil the mood. "It’s beautiful. Much more than I remember."
Hou Dong smiled and the two of them went back to looking at the lake, just silently enjoying each other’s company.
Soon, Hou Dong kissed Kanuen’s cheek and then got up. "You haven’t eaten anything since morning. I went hunting." He crouched down in the entrance of the tent and then took out the dishes he had prepared. It didn’t look like much but the animals had been hunted by himself, their meat processed by his own hands, the fruits plucked with his own fingers.
Kanuen raised his brows once again. "No wonder you needed so long." He couldn’t help but feel sweet when he saw the dishes. It wasn’t the food of Sou that the townspeople cooked but instead the simpler things that Hou Dong and his men would often cook when they were traveling: The meat would be roasted over the fire, the fruits either eaten raw or pressed for their juice. Sometimes, they would cut the bigger fruits open as well and roast them for a minute or two, swearing up and down that they tasted completely different that way.
Preparing this … Hou Dong had really done his best today. Kanuen couldn’t help but give him a bright smile at that, reaching out and brushing his arm. This man truly treated him well.
Hou Dong smiled and put the food down in front of Kanuen, sitting next to him again. "Well, I felt that if I did prepare, I should go all out. Maybe it can’t compare to the food at home but I’ve done everything by myself. I hope that counts for something."
Kanuen nodded. "It certainly does."
The two of them ate while reminiscing their travels together. This kind of meal was truly full of memories.
After they finished, Hou Dong put everything away and they spend the rest of the afternoon lying on the blanket, their fingers entwined while they listened to the birds sing in the row of trees at the hill’s foot and quietly talked about their everyday life in the town. All the while, the sun slowly sank toward the horizon.
The closer they got to the twilight hour, the more anxious Hou Dong got. Even though Piul had sworn up and down that today was the day the shooting stars would fall, he couldn’t help but be afraid that things wouldn’t turn out that way. In a place like Sou, where the people believed that everything was decreed by fate, wouldn’t they feel that his relationship with Kanuen was ill-fated if his proposal fell through like this? He didn’t want that!
Kanuen also felt that Hou Dong was taking his sweet time. He had already waited for him to prepare everything in the morning. Now, he was once again waiting for him to get it out with. Was it really so hard to ask him that one question? In the end, he could only sigh and continue to spend his time with Hou Dong. Anyway, they had already gotten so far. That in itself was great. He just had to wait a bit longer.
The last light of the day faded and twilight descended.
Hou Dong turned onto his back and looked up at the sky, silently praying to the god of Sou that the shooting stars might fall down any moment now. Then he took a deep breath and turned back to Kanuen. He squeezed his hand, pulling him closer and wrapping him in his arms to make sure he wouldn’t be cold since it was slowly getting colder. He earnestly looked at him, trying to find the right words to start this. He didn’t just want to rush ahead. He wanted to make this the most beautiful proposal it could be so Kanuen would fondly remember it for the rest of his life. "I remember that while we were traveling, you told me once that your parents named you Kanuen because you were born in the hour of twilight."
Kanuen snuggled up against his lover and nodded, looking up at the sky as well. "Mn, that’s the truth. Maybe that is the reason why I always loved this hour very much. When the last light fades but it’s not completely dark yet … I feel that this is the most beautiful." He pointed at the darkening sky where the first stars slowly started to twinkle. "Look at that! That is the first star that lights up in the sky each night. Afterward, bit by bit, the whole night sky will be sparkling with all these small lights.
"When I was young I sometimes wondered if … when you looked from high above, maybe that would be what a town looked like at night? Before everyone goes to bed and while their windows are still lit, it might look just like that. And I wondered if there might be another world up there. Maybe that is where the gods actually live. Maybe there isn’t just one. Maybe a different one lives in every country or maybe there are even several gods living together in some countries. Anyway, they’d all be quietly living their lives far from us in the sky and we can only get a glimpse of that world at night. When day comes, they’d extinguish their lamps and we can’t see them anymore. Not even a trace of that world will be left."
Hou Dong quietly listened, his lips inevitably perking up. "I feel like this is something only a priest could come up with."
Kanuen laughed, the bright sound even clearer in the silent night. "Maybe that is the truth. It’s just something that I was wondering about every now and then when I was a child. Now … I’m quite sure they’re just stars. Anyway, Iana never told me where the gods live or if there are others in the first place. I never asked though."
Hou Dong nodded and kissed his cheek, keeping his gaze on the sky.
Kanuen instead looked at the lake and a warm smile spread on his lips. "This spot is really beautiful. There’s the night sky above you and if you look down, then you can also see the stars reflected in the water of the lake. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was the gate to another world."
Just then, the first shooting star flashed across the sky.
Hou Dong hugged his lover closer and gave him another kiss. "So what was that?"
Kanuen chuckled, even though he felt a little disappointed inside. If Hou Dong could still remember that night back then, then they’d be getting married soon. It really would have been too perfect. He took a deep breath and watched the stars above, trying to cheer up. "Well, if the stars are lamps, then that was a lover’s tiff. Somebody threw their lamp after the scoundrels that tried to break into their house at night."
Hou Dong also laughed. "It’s rather unromantic."
Before Kanuen could find another thing to say, a second shooting star followed suit.
"Are you sure somebody is throwing lamps?"
Kanuen shook his head and reached out, entwining his fingers with Hou Dong’s. "Maybe they’re celebrating."
"What are they celebrating then? Our engagement?"
Kanuen raised his gaze from their hands to Hou Dong’s face, surprise flashing through his eyes. "You mean …"
Hou Dong squeezed his hand and inched closer. "Back then when we celebrated the evening before my men left the town, you promised me something. You said that if I looked up at the sky every evening and saw a shooting star, you’d marry me three days later. Is that still true?"
Kanuen looked at him in a daze. This … He had thought that Hou Dong had been too drunk to remember. How come he suddenly … He looked up at the sky again that was full of shooting stars. And thinking back now, Hou Dong had indeed looked out of the window each day before they went to bed. It seemed he had known from that day on and had actually been waiting for this to happen. For a moment, he really was speechless.
Hou Dong let go of his hand and then knelt in front of him, brushing back his hair and gazing into his eyes earnestly. "A pen mi. Uania sou!"
Kanuen’s gaze softened and he leaned forward, craning his neck and kissing Hou Dong’s lips. He had been happy when Hou Dong made the effort to learn his language. Being proposed in it now … "Anieni."
Hou Dong pulled him back into his arms and deepened the kiss. His hands brushed Kanuen’s back, unable to keep still. If he could, he never wanted to let go again.
The two of them only separated when both of them were short of breath.
Kanuen looked up, his fingers lightly brushing Hou Dong’s shoulders, his gaze burning. "You know, that wasn’t just a single shooting star. I’m sure that my people would see that as a sign so … Why wait for three days?"
Hou Dong looked at him, his gaze flickering. Yes, if he could, he also didn’t want to wait. "Was there no deeper meaning behind those three days?"
Kanuen shook his head. "I thought that you might want some days to prepare. But actually, there isn’t much to do. Our rituals are simple, just mimicking nature. And we’ve already waited for so long." He glanced up at the sky again, his face shining in the light of the stars. "Just the two of us will be enough for the ceremony. We could go right now."
"Are you sure you won’t regret it?"
Kanuen laughed. "You asked me to marry you and I said yes. What is there to regret? Whether it’s now or three days later … Actually, I was wondering when you’d finally ask. You sure made me wait a long time. Now, you really want me to persevere even further?"
Hou Dong kissed his cheek and then got up and pulled him to his feet as well. "Who told you to come up with something like this? It’s your own fault for getting married so late." He pulled him back into his arms and gave him another lingering kiss. "Am I right for assuming that we’d be getting married in the temple?"
Kanuen nodded and then wormed his way out of Hou Dong’s arms, grabbing his hand and leading him back to the town, ready to take this final step.