Neither of them said a word when Kanuen finished with his bath. They didn’t talk much for the rest of the evening either. Hou Dong just silently brought the basin out of the room, giving it to one of his men so that they could dispose of the water.
He hurriedly pulled Shen Ling to the side while he was at it. "What about the invitations?"
Shen Ling grinned and pulled out what perfectly looked like the letter they had seen in the rich man’s mansion before. "This is the sample. If it’s alright like this, then I’ll craft the rest tonight and find someone to deliver them."
Hou Dong nodded. "I’ll trust in your assessment. If you think it looks alright, then it is. Just make sure it’s delivered to the right people but without anybody finding him before we’re gone."
"Sure." Shen Ling nodded and hurried off to prepare the invitations.
Hou Dong gave another sigh. Well, things on that side were wrapped up and he already had a plan on how to deal with the merchants tomorrow and force them to leave. In that case …
He turned back to the door and furrowed his brows. He didn’t dare to leave Kanuen alone for too long. Not with the condition he was in right now. Thus he went back inside, sitting down next to him while trying to make up his mind if it would be alright to hug him. Kanuen didn’t seem to have had a problem with it before but then again, he had pushed him away when he wanted to take off his clothes. Maybe that was where he had gone too far?
In the end, Hou Dong awkwardly cleared his throat. "Quite a lot happened today. You’re probably tired so … how about going to sleep?"
Kanuen nodded and silently shifted to the inner side of the bed. Hou Dong looked at him and then looked at the bed on the other side of the room. He couldn’t help but wonder what he should do.
Kanuen smiled when he saw his gaze darting about. "What is it? Didn’t I wash the scent off already? So why are you being like this? Didn’t you say before that you would hug me after I smell like myself again?"
Hou Dong turned back to him and gave a smile that was uncharacteristically insecure. "You won’t mind?"
Kanuen shook his head. "I don’t mind. Haven’t you hugged me to sleep for the last few weeks as well? You never seemed to mind then." He stretched out his arms as if inviting Hou Dong. Naturally, the warrior didn’t need anything more than that. Kanuen had already said that he was alright and was even being this direct. If he still didn’t lie down next to him, could he still be called a man?
He lay down next to him, wrapping his arms around the slender waist and letting Kanuen hug his shoulders. "If you are uncomfortable with this, just tell me. I can back off a bit or sleep in the other bed. I don’t mind."
Kanuen gave a small smile. "You don’t mind?"
Hou Dong sighed. "Naturally, I hope I can stay with you but … you being comfortable is more important. So just tell me if something is wrong. I’ll take care of it."
Kanuen nodded but instead shifted even closer to Hou Dong, pressing his cheek up against his chest and closing his eyes. "Nothing is wrong. Actually, everything is alright now. This is how it should be." He let go of Hou Dong’s neck only to hold onto the lapel of the robe, clinging to him as a drowning man might hold onto driftwood.
Yes, right now, Hou Dong was the only thing keeping him afloat from these memories. In his arms, he felt secure. He definitely didn’t want him to leave or even back off. No, he wanted him to stay right here. The closer they were, the better. That way, he wouldn’t have to live through this ordeal again in his memories. No, in this man’s arms, he might actually have some sweet dreams tonight.
The next morning, Kanuen woke up slightly disoriented. He hadn’t had sweet dreams but he hadn’t suffered from nightmares either. Instead, it seemed as if it had been a dreamless night. He couldn’t help but wonder if everything happening yesterday might not have been a bad dream after all. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
He raised his gaze to Hou Dong’s face and smiled to himself. Well, even if they weren’t, at the very least, Hou Dong was still there. He hadn’t abandoned him. That was already very good. He had worried if maybe what those men had said before was true. Maybe broken goods weren’t liked by anybody. Maybe Hou Dong would also feel disgusted when thinking about how he had almost been taken by two other men. Maybe he would leave him here and not care about his fate anymore. But it seemed he had thought too much. Hou Dong wasn’t that kind of man. No, he wasn’t like that at all.
Kanuen snuggled up closer to the man next to him, his lips still curved in a sweet smile.
Hou Dong looked at him with tired eyes. While this person had unexpectedly slept rather well, he hadn’t been able to sleep at all. He just couldn’t help but go over what had happened before, thinking of all the things he could have done differently to make sure that nothing would have happened to Kanuen.
After a night of that, he felt even worse. Honestly, he had said so many things about the country of Kai and the people living here but when he thought about it he was just as much of a scum as the men living here.
How had he even thought of a plan like letting Kanuen be sold off and then saving him to get back at these merchants? Why hadn’t he thought of what this meant for Kanuen before? Why hadn’t he wondered if it was dangerous if things went wrong? Why hadn’t he taken any of that into consideration?
If he had, then things would have played out differently. But now, he had gone through with it. He had thought of the plan that was most beneficial to his men and just trusted in the fact that he would be able to make things work without any problems. He had been way too optimistic, way too careless. And Kanuen had been the one to pay for that.
"I’m sorry." Hou Dong brushed through Kanuen’s hair, gently rubbing his head. "I’ve let you down. I should have protected you better."
Kanuen looked up, his lips and eyes curving up. "You didn’t. You were there to save me and you are here now that I’ve woken up. What did you do wrong? There’s nothing like that. I’m happy you’re with me. Without you … No, I don’t even want to imagine."
Seeing that sweet smile made Hou Dong feel even worse. He had done something wrong and this person still managed to smile at him like this. He didn’t deserve him at all. Well, he was still happy that Kanuen didn’t mind too much. If he did … He wouldn’t know what to do.
After the few weeks they had spent together, he was sure that he didn’t want to leave his side anymore. He wanted them to be together. If Kanuen wouldn’t have wanted to even see him anymore, then he would have been lost. "Well, let’s get up then, shall we? We still have to get you into the appropriate clothes and see if it isn’t too obvious."
Kanuen nodded and sat up, watching as Hou Dong went over to the table where he had already put two sets of clothes yesterday. He hadn’t paid too much attention before but now he saw that it was the same set of clothes just in different sizes. He wondered where Hou Dong had managed to get this so fast. Hadn’t they only come to the town yesterday? But now he was already this well-prepared.
"Here, this one’s for you." Hou Dong handed over the clothes that were meant for Kanuen and then stepped back. "Uh … I … I’ll wait in front of the door." He motioned behind him and then rushed out, not even giving Kanuen the time to respond.
The youth looked after him, blinking his eyes. "Ah? But … you really don’t have to." He only mumbled these words and didn’t go to tell Hou Dong so. Since he was already outside, there was no need to say anything. He merely changed his clothes and then went to the door, opening it and showing himself to Hou Dong. "How is it?"
Hou Dong smiled. "You look like you’d be able to ride through the desert like this."
Kanuen laughed. "You can count yourself lucky that I was riding with you for such a long time. If it had been before I might not have been able to do it. You know I’ve never ridden a horse before."
Hou Dong raised his brows. Seriously? He had never thought of that. Well, it seemed it really was good that they had already spent this much time on horseback. Otherwise, his plan would’ve fallen through because of such a detail. After all, while a slightly smaller person in his team might not be noticed, if two people had to ride on the same horse, that would definitely draw attention. They might be able to explain it away but the merchants would pay more attention if they saw and who knew if that wouldn’t give away that this person was Kanuen? Ah, even with that, he had been too careless. It was a wonder that everything had gone more or less alright until now. That certainly wasn’t thanks to him.
Hou Dong sighed and patted Kanuen’s shoulder. "Alright, I still have to change my clothes. Why don’t you go down already and eat? The others should already be there anyway. If you’re together from the beginning, then it’s less likely for people to notice."
Kanuen looked at him, wondering whether he should say something or not. In the end, he just gave a nod and walked to the staircase, taking a last look at Hou Dong before he went down, joining the others.
Hou Dong heaved a sigh of relief and then shook his head, going inside to change his clothes. He went over the rest of his plan again, wondering if there was something else he hadn’t taken note of yet. He couldn’t come up with anything but he still had a bad feeling about it. What if something went wrong? What if the merchants noticed somehow? What should he do then?
Well, regardless of how much he thought about it, he wouldn’t be able to find a solution now anyway. He could only wait and hope that things would go too much awry. That wasn’t a great plan but it was the only one he had.
Finally, Hou Dong went down to join the others. He unconsciously sought out Kanuen and sat down next to him only to freeze afterward. Yes, this might be a problem. He was much too close to Kanuen. If he continued to be like this when they were on the road with the merchants, then he would be the one to give them away.
He sighed and reached over, patting Kanuen’s hand out of sight. "After we leave the town, we’ll have to keep some distance. Otherwise, they’ll figure things out."
Kanuen nodded. "I thought as much. Then … will I get my own tent?"
Hou Dong tensed. Right, there was something else he hadn’t thought of. If they couldn’t be together, then where would Kanuen sleep? Even though he trusted his men, he didn’t really want Kanuen to be alone with any of them. Especially not after he had seen how Kanuen reacted even to his touch yesterday. "Uh, well … Naturally." He couldn’t bring himself to say any more than that.
Kanuen chuckled when he saw his uncomfortable expression. "Really? Will there be no opportunity for me to sneak into our Master’s tent?"
The men around them laughed.
"Master, you should really think about it. We don’t mind putting up one more tent but wouldn’t you be very lonely if you couldn’t take your beauty with you?"
Hou Dong smiled wryly. "Sun Jin, did yesterday go above your head or something?"
Sun Jin raised his hands and shook his head. "How could it? I’m just looking out for you, Master! I only have your best interest in mind."
Hou Dong shook his head but still took Kanuen’s hand. "If you don’t mind, you can sleep with me. We just have to sneak around a bit."
Next to them, Sun Jin whistled. "Is that what they call a clandestine love affair?"
Duan Bao reached over and slapped the back of his head. "Do you ever think before you talk?"
Sun Jin cursed but shut up. Alright, alright, he already understood. No need to get violent.
Hou Dong smiled and rubbed the back of Kanuen’s hand. He leaned over and lowered his voice so the others wouldn’t hear too much. "Only if you really don’t mind. I would understand if this was difficult for you right now."
Kanuen smiled and squeezed his hand in return. "What are you even saying? Didn’t we already go over that yesterday? I’m alright with it. I trust you. You’re not like those men. Absolutely not."
Hou Dong nodded and stop pursuing the subject. Right, they had already talked about this. As long as Kanuen didn’t say that he had a problem with it or didn’t show that he was uncomfortable, he’d just take it as him not having a problem with it. There was nothing wrong with spending time together. It wasn’t like he was trying to coerce him into doing something he didn’t want to. It was really just sleeping in the same tent, hugging each other to sleep. There shouldn’t be anything too bad about it.
The men finally finished their breakfast in a good mood and left the inn, returning to the main street where the merchants were slowly getting up as if they had all the time in the world.
Even though they weren’t out in the desert yet, Hou Dong’s men had put on the clothes that they had agreed on and pulled up the cloth to cover their faces as much as possible. Kanuen was standing in the middle, his figure not too obvious between the other men.
Hou Dong only glanced over and heaved a sigh of relief when he saw that Kanuen really couldn’t be made out with his height being close to that of the other men. The merchants would need to take a closer look to notice that something was off with him. He really doubted that they to do that though. After all, they didn’t care about his men.
He motioned for the others to wait and then went up to the door of the inn, motioning at the servant standing in front of the door to get the merchants out. They had agreed to leave today and leaving early was in their interest since it would help to ensure that people wouldn’t be able to catch up to them even if they noticed what had happened to that rich man. The longer they waited the higher the risk was.
The merchant grumbled when the warriors they had hired actually dared to demand they set off before they were ready. Hou Dong didn’t care at all. When Mister Zai came out to tell him that they definitely wouldn’t set off right now, he only scoffed at him.
"You don’t want to leave? Then I’d suggest you hand over our remuneration. And I’m not talking about the amount you wanted to give us after lying to us. I’m talking about the amount of money I asked for in the oasis. If you don’t do so … Well, I don’t mind going around and telling every fucking mercenary group here in the town that you are a group of merchants that will hire somebody and then not pay them at the end. I’d really like to see how you’ll get back to Hua country if I do that. Don’t think just because we’re not mercenaries, they wouldn’t believe us. My reputation is good, even in Kai. Much better than yours I bet."
Mister Zai gaped. He certainly wouldn’t have thought that this guy would dare to talk to him like this. He wanted to scold him and tell him off but then he remembered the day before. Right, they had sold off that boy. Most likely, this guy was still angry about that. After all, he had had some fun with him for quite a while. Most likely, he hadn’t been happy to let him go.
Well, whatever. He didn’t care about that. It was only important that they needed somebody to escort them back. He didn’t doubt that Hou Dong might make true on his words this time. After all, what he said was true. They couldn’t risk offending all the mercenary teams in the town. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to safely get back home. That wasn’t worth it.
This guy … he really had been smart, waiting with bringing up this thread after they had reached the town. He wouldn’t be able to get out of this as easily as back in the oasis. Still, he refused to let this warrior gain the upper hand this easily!
Mister Zai gave a strained smile and waved. "Aiya, Mister Hou, what are you even talking about? We would never do something like that. It’s just that we’re not quite finished yet so you’ll still have to wait for a while."
Hou Dong clicked his tongue. "Well, then I suggest you hurry up. If you’re not out here in an hour, then we will be. So you should better tell your servants to hurry. I’m not joking. You can be sure about that." His gaze that hadn’t been happy from the very beginning darkened even further.
He had never liked these guys and he had no trouble whatsoever to show his dislike. Especially not after what had happened yesterday. Just thinking about Kanuen’s frightened face he was boiling with rage. Actually, he was quite amazed that he was able to hold back from punching the guy in the face. He would surely deserve it.
Mister Zai’s expression also darkened. "You shouldn’t go overboard, Mister Hou!"
"That’s what I thought when you lied to me and then dared to threaten me when I brought it up. So I’m already past that point. So either you do as I say and we’ll end this … so-called cooperation civilly or I’ll make sure things will turn out badly for you. My men and I can do without the payment. Can you do without your last bit of reputation? Because I don’t mind smearing it in the whole kingdom of Kai or back in Hua country. And you sure as hell shouldn’t doubt that I have the means to do so. I’ve gotten to know lots of people over the years."
The merchant had no idea what it was but he suddenly shuddered at Hou Dong’s words. It couldn’t be that this person really knew that many people, could it? Then again, there had to be a reason why he had been pointed to this person for help when he couldn’t find anybody to accompany them through the desert. Maybe … he needed to take this seriously. Well, it couldn’t hurt to at least tell the others.
Mister Zai gave another smile, trying to look a little bit more sincere this time and then motioned inside. "You see, I’m not the only merchant in this group. Let me at least go and tell the others. We’ll try to get ready as fast as possible. Will that be alright?"
Hou Dong narrowed his eyes. "You seem to have misheard what I just said. I told you to get ready in an hour. If you’re not here by then …" He turned to his men and looked at Sun Jin who waved to the side of the street. One of the beggars came over and was given a coin.
Sun Jin grinned. "You. You stay here for a while. It could be that we have something to do for you in about an hour. We’ll pay more if you can do what we’ll ask you to do by then. You understood that?"
The man tucked the coin into his clothes and nodded eagerly, planting his butt on the spot right next to the entrance of the inn.
Mister Zai paled. These beggars would do anything for money. He knew that fully well. If Hou Dong was crazy enough to pay them a high amount of money, then the message he wanted to have spread, would be spread through the city in only a few minutes. After all, word-of-mouth traveled far. And if his name got smeared in such a manner, then they really wouldn’t be able to get any of the local mercenary troops to work with them ever again. And they were mostly doing business with Kai. That really would be the end.
The merchant’s lips twitched in fury. "We’ll be here in half an hour."
Hou Dong smiled behind the cloth. "That’s what I wanted to hear." He turned away and motioned at his men. "You get ready to set off. I’m sick of this place." He turned to his horse and started to go through his bags as if he really wanted to leave right the next moment.
Mister Zai shook his head and ran inside, hissing at the servant to go and tell the others. Naturally, the merchants weren’t happy. Still, for the fear of their future profits, they hurried and indeed managed to stand in front of the inn in less than an hour. Hou Dong didn’t say anything and just motioned at his men who got onto their horses in a swift motion.
The merchants who were still worried that word might be spread about any mistake they had done, hurried to get on their own horses that the servants were bringing over and didn’t take the time to even glance at Hou Dong’s men. Kanuen remained undiscovered and thus, the group finally left the border town of the country of Kai and returned to the desert, making their way back to the oasis where fate had brought Hou Dong and Kanuen together for the first time.