23 A Long-Forgotten Lullaby
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Kanuen had grown up in this place and knew it like the back of his hand. Even though it had almost gotten pitch black around them, he didn’t have any trouble to find his way back. They soon reached the outskirts of the town and then continued on through the quiet streets to the doors of the temple.

Each of them opened one wing of the door in unplanned unison before they stepped in. Kanuen waved for Hou Dong to close it again and then used the embers in one of the braziers to light up a torch. He went through the room, unhurriedly lighting up the other torches. Soon enough, the hall was filled with warm light.

Hou Dong went over and hugged Kanuen from behind, taking a deep breath. "Let’s start?" He didn’t know what he was supposed to do but he felt that he was doing the right thing at this moment. This was what he had been waiting for. Kanuen and he would finally officially become a couple. Even though his men and the people in the town had never doubted the nature of their relationship and nobody had tried to force them apart, he still couldn’t help but feel that this was necessary.

Whatever the opinion of the people of Sou and of a bunch of rough warriors was, the common people back in Hua would only consider them to be a legitimate couple after they had married. And yes, he wanted to be able to bring Kanuen to his hometown one day and then proudly proclaim him his spouse.

Kanuen turned in his arms and cupped his cheeks with a smile, giving him a kiss before motioning to the small staircase on the other side of the room. "If you’re eager to get married, let’s go."

Hou Dong didn’t need to be told twice. The two of them went over, going up the small flight of stairs and then stopped at the top. Kanuen looked at the basin in front of them, giving yet another smile. "I feel like saying thank you."

"I guess that thank you isn’t for me?"

Kanuen chuckled and shook his head, kneeling down and closing his eyes. He wasn’t sure if Iana would hear him. Up until the moment when he left Sou, he had never doubted it. But now, things were different. He wasn’t able to hear Iana any longer. Maybe they weren’t able to hear him either? Maybe they weren’t even able to hear the other people in Sou? Maybe this was something specific to the priests?

Nevertheless, he silently said his thanks in his mind, expressing his gratitude for the blessing in disguise that the attack of the bandits had been. Despite the fear he had first felt and despite almost dying in the desert, he had met the person he wanted to spend his life with because of these things. So maybe all was well that ends well. At least he didn’t regret any of it.

Hou Dong watched his lover and finally knelt down beside him, silently grabbing his hand and also closing his eyes. He didn’t believe. He hadn’t cared about the gods of Hua and he didn’t have any relationship with this god of Sou. Well, the latter wasn’t true any longer. He hadn’t had that relationship but now, it was obviously there. The person he was about to marry was that god’s priest.

He took a deep breath and then also quietly expressed his thanks. Anyway, without this belief that the people of Sou had, Kanuen might not have come to the desert. Even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have been willing to go with a guy that had treated him like that. For that, Sou’s god deserved his eternal gratitude.

Kanuen opened his eyes first and looked over to Hou Dong, smiling more brightly. It turned out that his lover could actually take this seriously. He gave him a moment longer and only when Hou Dong opened his eyes as well did he motion for them to get up.

The two of them looked at each other and Kanuen nodded to the other side of the basin. "Let’s go over."

Hou Dong wanted to follow him but his lover let go of his hand and then pushed him lightly in the other direction. "That’s your oath."

Hou Dong looked over and noticed that there was a small path leading behind the basin on both sides. It seemed that they were supposed to go this path alone? He didn’t ask anything and just did as he thought was right.

They met again on the other side of the basin and Kanuen gave him a smile. "The wedding ceremony of Sou isn’t complicated but it is symbolic and represents our understanding of the world. I’ll try to explain but I might not have the words to say some things."

Hou Dong shook his head. "I don’t mind. What I don’t understand now might become clear in the future. We still have our lives ahead of us."

Kanuen nodded and then motioned back over to the other side of the basin. "Everyone is born the same so when approaching the source of Iana’s strength, we will stand together. Then this path … it is the path we walked alone between our birth and the moment we met. Now, this is the place where we meet."

He reached out, his fingers lightly brushing over Hou Dong’s chest and down to his stomach. Before Hou Dong understood what as happening, Kanuen’s fingers deftly opened his belt. Hou Dong raised his brows but silently let him continue. He did wonder just what kind of symbolic meaning this could have though.

Kanuen quietly folded the belt and put it on the small stone bench that stood at the wall behind the basin. Then, he turned back, gently pushing the outer robe from Hou Dong’s shoulders before he folded it and put it away in the same way as the belt. Hou Dong was already holding his breath, his body burning from the light caress of Kanuen’s fingertips. He wanted to heave a sigh of relief that this sweet torture was over now but Kanuen actually turned toward him once more, continuing in the manner until Hou Dong was completely stripped naked.

Only then did he step back and look at his lover with a faint smile, indicating for him to return the favor.

Hou Dong looked at Kanuen’s face and gulped. This kind of custom … Were the people of Sou kidding him? Which husband would be able to do this with a calm mind right before marrying the person they loved? Furthermore, they were in a temple!

He took a deep breath to calm his boiling blood and then started to open Kanuen’s belt with slightly trembling hands. Although they had known each other for almost a year now and had slept next to each other every night, tightly embracing and maybe kissing, that was the furthest they had gone. He had never before seen Kanuen naked and he wouldn’t have thought that it would happen the first time in such a way.

Hou Dong lightly exhaled, not daring to say even a single word. He quietly disrobed his lover, conscientiously folding his clothes in the same way Kanuen had folded his and putting them down on the stone bench as well. When he turned back … He had trouble not looking at Kanuen. His throat turned dry and he had to take his hands back and clasp them behind his back to not reach out again and pull this person into his arms. Ah, Heaven knew what was going through his mind and what he really wanted to do right now.

Kanuen chuckled, not at all seeming as if he minded their nakedness. He reached out, silently asking Hou Dong to take his hand.

Hou Dong gulped again but finally grasped his hand. Anyway, they had been holding hands a thousand times already. It was just their hands touching, nothing more. There was no reason to be like this.

His cheeks still flushed red when their palms met. He didn’t know if he was imagining it but he felt as if he could sense the heat radiating from Kanuen’s body and smell the light fragrance he gave off. It was … bewitching him. If not for the fact that they were in a temple and about to marry, he might not have been able to hold back.

Kanuen tugged at his hand and Hou Dong followed him up the small flight of stairs on this side of the basin, stepping into the water. Hou Dong didn’t know how but it was warm, not at all uncomfortable on the skin. Instead, it enveloped him like a familiar embrace, caressing his skin. It didn’t help at all with calming his mind. Instead, he felt like it must feel wonderful if he pulled Kanuen into his arms now and finally touched that beautiful skin.

Thinking of that, he turned to Kanuen, wondering how they would continue. He needed something to occupy his thought or he might go crazy.

Kanuen pulled him to the middle of the basin and then took a step back, quietly looking at him with the same gentle smile. "It is said that Iana’s spirit is in everything around us but we do believe that there are things that carry more and things that carry less of this spirit. Water is something we believe to hold a special significance since no creature can live without it." His smile broadened. "Thinking of that, I feel it is quite the coincidence that we met at the edge of a pond. If you told my people, they’d probably say it must have been a sign from Iana."

Hou Dong laughed lightly. "I bet they would. So …" He looked down, his fingers lightly tapping the surface of the water. "Is it a basin because water is special?"

Kanuen nodded. "Yes. We believe that our lives come from nature, that we are guided by nature, and that we will one day return to nature. The one governing it is Iana and we were shown these wonders of nature by our god. This basin is what we humans have created to mimic what Iana has given us much like the ritual itself mimics life. Thus the basin is used to bind us together in a ritual."

Hou Dong nodded slowly, feeling that he somewhat understood. It did make him wonder about the rest of the ritual though. This was … what would happen after two lovers meeting if he considered what Kanuen had explained before.

Before he could figure it out, Kanuen bent down, scooping some water with his hands and stepped closer again, letting the water run over Hou Dong’s body. His hands followed suit, rubbing his skin with gentle motions and causing his skin to feel even hotter.

Hou Dong watched him but finally had to evade his gaze. Kanuen’s sight alone was enough to make his thoughts swarm with images. Feeling his hands as well … He really couldn’t keep clearheaded.

Kanuen craned his neck, kissing his cheek. "There’s no need to be like this. It is how it is done. Nothing bad about it." He stepped behind Hou Dong, once again scooping up some water and moistened Hou Dong’s back. His wet hands trailed down from his shoulders to his lower back, igniting a fire inside of him.

Hou Dong shut his eyes, gulping heavily. Seeing him was bad. Not seeing him was even worse. Whether he focused on his breathing or did something else, he couldn’t keep the excitement down.

When his lover finally stepped back and Hou Dong turned around to him, he could only reach down with an embarrassed expression and try to cover himself. Maybe this was stupid. Soon enough, they would be a married couple. What was there that Kanuen wouldn’t see by then? But at this moment, he really didn’t know how to cope with it.

Kanuen laughed again and reached out, grabbing his wrist and pulling his hand away. "What are you doing? It’s not a problem. It’s supposed to happen."

Hou Dong stared at him, not quite understanding. "This … in the temple?" He remembered from the few times he had stepped into one in Hua that they had always been places of importance. People would go there to pray and seek help. This kind of thing certainly didn’t have any place in the temple.

Kanuen stepped closer again, lightly holding Hou Dong’s hands. "Being joined in marriage, that is the human ritual. It is a name one gives each other, a status. It isn’t nature itself. What happens in nature …" He reached out, his fingertips lightly tracing the muscles on Hou Dong’s stomach. "This is what nature this. The body you and I were gifted with, the ability to combine them. So why would you feel awkward because of that? Just go ahead."

Hou Dong once again took a shaky breath. 'Just go ahead.' His lover really was able to drive him insane. How could he say something like that so easily?

He closed his eyes, trying to calm down slightly and then did what Kanuen had done and scooped up some water, slowly washing his body. It didn’t help his condition though. On the contrary, so close to Kanuen and even touching his skin, his excitement only grew.

His gaze followed the graceful line of his neck, his fingers brushed his collarbone, his palms felt the contours of his torso. His breath turned ragged when he stepped behind him and saw the water nipping at Kanuen’s hips, barely covering his lower body. He couldn’t help himself and pulled Kanuen into a tight hug, a sigh escaping his lips. He shuddered, unable to let go but unable to continue as well.

Kanuen reached up, rubbing his cheek. "That is all there is to this ritual. From now on, we will count as a married couple. As for everything else …"

He turned in Hou Dong’s arms, looking up at him and kissing his lips. His fingers traced down from Hou Dong’s cheek to his jaw and further down to his throat. "I didn’t want to bring it up previously because you didn’t know much about Sou. It’s just that … back then in Kai, this was why I couldn’t stand you being with me when …" He shook his head, sighing. "I didn’t want us to end up considered being married without you ever knowing. I hope you weren’t angry because of that."

Hou Dong glanced at him, his thoughts hardly keeping up. Kai … He remembered how Kanuen hadn’t wanted him to be there when he took a bath. He had thought it was just because he was afraid after what had happened but it turned out that there had been more to it. Come to think of it …

Hou Dong’s gaze slightly changed. When Kanuen had originally been assaulted it had been in the bath of the inn. In other words … not only had he been in danger of one of these men forcing them on him, but they also would have been considered his spouse according to the customs of Sou?

Hou Dong took a shaky breath and tightened his grab around Kanuen. "I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I had known that … I shouldn’t have let it happen."

Kanuen shook his head. "Don’t say it like that. Somebody else’s wrongdoing isn’t your fault. You were … nothing but sweet to me the entire time. Even that plan was something you only did after I agreed. Had I said no, then you wouldn’t have gone through with it. I’m sure of that much after knowing you for so long. So don’t think about it any longer. I just mentioned it because I felt you should know. I don’t want anything to stand between us in the future." He kissed his lover’s cheek but he could see that Hou Dong still wasn’t convinced.

He sighed, almost regretting that he had brought it up. Still, he didn’t want this to come up in the future and cause problems then. With their wedding, they were starting into a new part of their life. In that case, they should leave the old things behind. Not forgetting about them but moving on and just regarding them as memories that would guide their future way.

Kanuen looked into his lover’s eyes and smiled. "Do not blame yourself. Even though not everything went perfectly, aren’t we here now? You have proposed to me and you have married me. I am yours now. Truly yours. And nothing anybody ever tried to do can change that. So don’t think about them. Think about the person you are holding in your arms. After all … that is the one you just promised your life to. And wasn’t there something you just wanted to do? Come, there is no need to hold back from now on." He caressed Hou Dong’s chest and then tilted his head, his lips gently brushing his lover’s throat.

Hou Dong’s eyes widened and he took a ragged breath. Right. No matter what had happened before, right now, only this moment counted, only the person in front of him.

He hugged him tightly, his hands roaming over Kanuen’s back. His fingertips exploring his spine and the curve of his shoulder blades. All other thoughts disappeared from his mind, only leaving the bittersweet feeling that despite everything, he could finally call this person his own and would be able to spend the rest of his life with him.

Hou Dong reached up and cupped Kanuen’s cheeks, giving him another lingering kiss. "I love you."

Kanuen smiled and pecked his lips. "A pen mi."

"Mn." Hou Dong closed his eyes, quietly letting himself be swept away in the gentle waves of the water and the heat of the moment, deepening the kiss until both of them were left breathless. He cracked his eyes open and caressed Kanuen’s cheekbone, marveling at that pair of beautiful eyes again. "Doing this in a temple … it’s not that good, is it?"

Kanuen chuckled and grabbed his hand. "Can you wait a moment longer?"

"I would wait a lifetime for you if I needed to."

Kanuen tugged at his hand, leaving the basin with a shake of his head. "No need for that. I’m already yours for your whole life."

Hou Dong nodded and followed him back onto the path behind the basin and then over to a hidden stairwell in the corner of the temple. He raised his brows but still followed Kanuen up, his gaze brushing over his naked back. He gulped, not sure if it had really been such a good idea to leave. Waiting even another moment seemed much harder now.

An opening appeared above them and a patch of the night sky could be seen. Kanuen glanced over his shoulder and then they stepped outside onto what could only be the roof of the temple.

Hou Dong raised his brows and pulled Kanuen closer. The wind at night was colder and above the roofs, it was much more noticeable than in the streets. "Aren’t you cold?" They were, after all, still naked.

Kanuen glanced at him and his smile turned teasing. "Not yet but I might get cold if you don’t warm me up." He tugged at Hou Dong’s hand and went over to the middle of the roof, sitting down.

Hou Dong looked at him, then glanced around. The roof was flat and surrounded by a balustrade. Nobody would be able to see them here. Still … "Are you sure about doing it here?"

Kanuen looked up at the sky. "I feel that this is the perfect place, actually."

Hou Dong sat down next to him, also glancing up. "Do you feel … different being so close to the stars?" That was the only explanation he could imagine.

Kanuen nodded. "I do. And I feel especially close to Iana. Also …" He turned to Hou Dong and reached out, lightly touching his face. "Most people wouldn’t come here. We have this place all to ourselves."

"Mn." Hou Dong nodded and then leaned closer, kissing Kanuen’s lips and gently touching his soft skin before he lay down beside him, wrapping him in his arms.

Enveloped in the pale light of the stars, the two of them gazed at each other, smiling contentedly. They didn’t talk, only communicating with their bodies. Each gaze, each touch turned into a message.

'I love you.'

'Never let go.'

Until they finally lay side by side, their bodies warming each other while their breath tickled their skin. Hou Dong quietly kissed Kanuen’s temple and Kanuen snuggled up against his chest. They still didn’t talk and just closed their eyes, slowly drifting off into sleep.

Only sometime later did Kanuen crack open his eyes and look at the star-filled sky, his dark eyes reflecting their light while his lips curved into a smile. "Mn. It was my decision and if given the chance again, I would always make the same." With that, he closed his eyes again, drifting off into sleep again, the whisper in his mind like a long-forgotten lullaby.

Hello, everyone! This is already the end of "Finders Keepers". I hope you liked the novel (would appreciate a comment with your thoughts ;)).
The new project for Saturday's will start in early August when it has finished on Patreon. It's called "Choosing You" and is a collection of 30 short stories. I hope you'll check that one out when it goes online as well!