The members of the Qifeng organization had a long running bet: whoever could find a lover for their single leader first would win all the money gathered thus far in the prize pool created for this bet.
Since the money pooled together till now was a very generous amount that only kept growing larger as people bet more and more, there was no dearth of efforts on the members’ part to set their leader up with someone. For the sake of earning that reward, they even went as far as to kidnap different types of beauties from the surrounding towns to bring and show to their leader. However, till now, every potential lover selected by the members of the organization had been ruthlessly rejected by their leader with an expression of disinterest and even dislike.
Sitting in the eastern hall of the Qifeng organization’s main hideout, their leader, Bai Anjing, lay draped on his plush chair and had just emptied another cup of alcohol into his throat while pondering. He’d long since heard of the bet about finding him a lover and had a headache whenever some idiot dragged another person shivering with fright for his perusal. Sending all these chosen ‘candidates’ back was really bothersome.
In truth, it wasn’t that Bai Anjing wasn’t interested in that sort of thing, but the very thought of taking these people brought to him as lovers made his stomach churn for some reason while also filling him with an acute sense of boredom. As inexplicable as Bai Anjing thought such a reaction was, he wasn’t the kind to force himself to do something just because it was expected of him. As a result, the droves of potential lovers were always quickly turned away.
And yet, his subordinates persisted. So Bai Anjing persisted in his refusals as well. He rejected them all, be they man or woman, young or old, and in a certain instance, even a group of frightened children that one his more idiotic subordinates, Yu Jun, had rounded up for his scrutiny. When Bai Anjing had furiously growled at him that he was not a pedophile, Yu Jun had gulped with fright and shrunk back. Then peering up at his leader with trepidation, he’d tentatively asked if animals were more his type then.
It was said that the boot print left over from Bai Anjing’s response at that time still remained firmly etched into Yu Jun’s left buttock to this day.
Except for times like that, Bai Anjing did not care about what his subordinates did and left them to their own devices. As long as they didn’t break the rules he set for them—rules like the ones that forbade them from falling back to the organization’s more disreputable days of killing and pillaging—he maintained his distance and treated their attempts at finding him a lover with tolerance.
The rapport he had with the rest of the organization was friendly but shallow, and he had no intention of deepening it. Despite the four long years he spent here, Bai Anjing still felt like a guest in someone else’s house, never truly comfortable enough to settle down or open up. Sometimes, he even hoped in some small corner of his mind that one of his subordinates would truly end up bringing someone who he could take a fancy to and build a welcoming home with. Perhaps that would help him put down roots somewhere, even if it ended up taking him away from this organization.
Nearing footsteps broke Bai Anjing out of his musings. A teen boy who ran errands for them jogged up to Bai Anjing and bowed before saying, “Leader, Sister Wan Yingyue, Brother Yu Jun, and Old Man Ran have returned and…”
As the boy peeked up at his leader and uncertainly trailed away, Bai Anjing raised an eyebrow and urged him on, “And?”
Bowing his head again, the teen continued in a whisper, “A-And Brother Yu Jun has brought…another potential lover to show you.”
Laughter and excited chatter rang out loudly as the people lying nearby heard it. After seeing all the ridiculous attempts Yu Jun had made till now, they were looking forward to seeing just what new blunder that excitable young man was going to make now! What would the person he brought with him this time be like? It couldn’t be that he really would bring an animal for their leader, would he?
Hearing that that idiot Yu Jun was going to drag yet another person in front of him, Bai Anjing slumped in his chair, downed another cup of liquor, and sighed wearily. With a morose gaze, he looked down at the empty cup. It seemed that mere cupfuls of alcohol wouldn’t cut it for him this time. He set aside the empty cup on a nearby table and lifted the whole jar to his mouth while absentmindedly waving a hand at the errand boy to dismiss him.
It looked like today was going to be another troublesome day.
After being taken on a long and winding path that Xie Rong was sure was to confuse him more than anything, they finally reached the hideout. Xie Rong’s blindfold was taken off and he finally saw his destination.
The building was built low on the ground with curved greyish-green roofs and pale yellow walls. Trees bordered it on all sides, with gently rising hills and cliffs visible in the distance. The building itself consisted of a long and narrow main section with an eastern and western wing attached to either ends and extending frontwards. Though there were no visible guards, Xie Rong could feel sharp gazes boring into him from within the trees surrounding the building. One wrong step and he had no doubt that he would be riddled with arrows, throwing knives, and other projectile weapons in no time.
His hands left bound, Xie Rong was taken directly taken to the entrance in the main building before the group of four headed right. After walking for a while through a couple of passageways lined with doors, they finally arrived in a long hall.
Both ends of the hall opened into large archways that led into corridors while the hall itself seemed like a resting place in between. The long side on the left of the hall was lined with large windows while the right side bore a haphazard collection of well-maintained weapons mounted on the wall. The roof in the hall was higher than any other part of the building while the floor was covered in messily arranged and overlapping layers of various furs and fabric serving as carpets.
Groups of men and women sat sprawled, cross-legged, or straight-backed on the floor while playing games, discussing, drinking, snacking, gambling, working, or just chatting. Their hair and clothing were disarrayed and their attitudes very casual with a slight edge of warning. It was as if though these people were smiling and laughing now, at the turn of a moment, they could explode into violence if they deemed someone a threat or heard something they didn’t like.
And presiding over this den of beasts from the side was a man lying on a chair, his legs casually thrown over the armrest. Situated with its back to the wall lined with windows, the chair was padded generously with a variety of plush fur and stacked with comfortable pillows. From behind it, straight beams of honey-colored sunlight poured in through the windows, throwing elongated shadows that mimicked the shapes of the intricate window bars on the carpets lining the floor. The warm light limned the chair and its occupant in a halo of gold, casting them with a layer of etherealness.
Sprawled comfortably on the chair, the man’s legs dangled off one of the armrests. His head was tilted back, and the long stretch of his unbound hair hung down the side of the chair to pool on the floor. The lapels of his robes gaped open to reveal a slice of his well-muscled torso sprinkled with hair. His belt was cinched slackly on his waist. His long legs were clad in loose black pants and thick leather boots enclosed his feet even while indoors. One of his arms dangled down lazily while the other lifted up a jar of wine to let its contents pour down into his mouth in a continuous stream.
Errant rays of light lit the stream of wine in a sunset glow. Trickles of the liquid painted slick trails as it dripped down from the corners of his wine-reddened lips, tracing the contours of his slightly stubbled chin, slipping over the underside of his firm jaw, sliding along his long throat with its prominent Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he drank, then gathering at the hollow of his throat and over his collarbone for a spell before ponderously continuing its journey onto his muscled chest and abdomen, eventually veering to the side and into the robes.
As his eyes followed the path of the thin streams of wine painting the man’s skin, Xie Rong felt his throat go dry even from a distance. He pulled his gaze up and tried to gauge the other man’s features. But because the upper half of the man’s head hung over the chair’s outline, the strong glow backlighting him ensured that Xie Rong would be unable to make out much.
Yu Jun, the lively young man from the trio that had cornered Xie Rong, sauntered over to the man on the chair and said with a confident grin, “Leader, I brought you another unique beauty! You’ll like this one for sure!”
The people from the Qifeng organization surrounding them all had the same thought running in their minds: That’s what you say every time! Do you even understand the irony with ‘another unique’ anything?!
Not wishing to be a part of their local idiot Yu Jun’s buffoonery, Old Man Ran had already joined in with the crowd sitting about in the chamber while Wan Yingyue soundlessly disappeared into the other end of the hall.
On the chair, the man who was called the leader straightened the wine jar he was drinking from and slowly put it on the table to the side. In a rumbling voice turned husky due to the drink, he spoke, “You’ve brought yet another beauty, eh, Yu Jun? You never learn, do you?”
Sensing the discontent in his leader’s tone, Yu Jun gave out a smothered yelp and covered his buttocks just in case any more boot-clad feet with evil intent came their way.
The man on the chair sighed and waved a hand tiredly. “Ah, whatever. Bring your new choice to me and let me reject them already.” He brought down his legs from the armrest to sit more properly on the chair, finally giving Xie Rong a good view of his face.
Xie Rong’s eyes widened, a soundless gasp slipping out.
Looking to be in his late twenties, the leader’s face was handsome with a hint of ruggedness, but also refinement. Despite all the alcohol he had consumed, his features remained free of any drunkenness except for a slight flush over his cheeks. His black irises glinted sharply like chips of black diamonds, set inside narrow eyes that were tilted up at the outer ends. Above them, black eyebrows swept upward in elegant lines, lending him a heroic look. The unbound strands of his hair were swept back from his broad and smooth forehead, flowing down his back. He had high cheekbones, lean cheeks, and a square jaw sprinkled with stubble. His nose bridge was slightly uneven as if having been broken a few times before. Tinted with the color of wine, his lips looked as if they were used to smiling, but remained pressed in a flat line now. His skin was a couple of shades darker than Xie Rong’s and slightly rougher in the way of someone who occasionally worked outside in the sun. His posture was easy and relaxed, yet bore a sense of barely detectable stateliness and readiness.
As Xie Rong studied him, Bai Anjing also examined the young man in front him.
Appearing to be in his early to mid twenties, he was someone with a decently muscled frame, a straight posture, an inner nobility that shone through, and a pleasantly handsome face that was good to look at while also exuding a soothing feeling. There was the deep ache of sadness darkening the color in those lovely, petal-shaped eyes. But along with it, maturity, intelligence, and a calm steadiness also shone in his clear gaze. The features of his face were symmetrical and his expression after his startlement had subsided showed neither panic nor unwillingness, but a sense of purpose and strength along with wryness and something softer.
Bai Anjing loved how the surprise the young man felt after glancing at him had eclipsed all emotions in his eyes for a few moments. And he liked even more how, once he had composed himself, the sadness in the young man's eyes diminished greatly when gazing at him. Who wouldn't feel pleased at the sight of someone's eyes lighting up after just a look at them?
All in all, even though he was a bit more muscled than what Bai Anjing thought of as his ideal type, the faint interest and attraction he felt towards this young man nevertheless remained unaffected.
Meanwhile, the violent emotions that had started raging inside Xie Rong’s chest the second he laid eyes on Qifeng’s leader hadn’t subsided, but he managed to regain his outward equilibrium and acted unaffected. His eyes roved over the other man’s face, seeming to both drink him in and search for something.
Bai Anjing’s voice, low and smooth, broke through the strangeness thrumming in the air. “Yu Jun, I can’t believe it, but you’ve managed to really bring me a beauty capable of winning you that ridiculous bet.”
Shocked voices immediately began expressing their disbelief to one another. Had their leader finally chosen someone?! This young man wasn’t even the best beauty that had ever been brought to their leader, so how had he managed to charm him with just a glance?! In the end, was their long-running bet won by Yu Jin of all people?!
As if they were in their own world and removed from all this commotion, Xie Rong and Bai Anjing gazed into each other’s eyes, unreadable emotions flittering through rapidly.
Xie Rong was the first to speak, “Do you― No… What are you called?”
Bai Anjing smiled carefreely even as his eyes glittered. “My name is Bai Anjing. I currently lead the Qifeng organization.” Crooking a finger, he called, “Come here and let me take a better look at you.”
Xie Rong absentmindedly stepped forward and used his bound hands to pull a stool from the ones littering the room to sit down in front of Bai Anjing. A name like that, comprised of the characters for white and silence, he guessed, made him think of blankness, something empty and unfilled. What did this person think each time that name was used to call him?
“What are you thinking about with such a deep frown? Is my name that interesting?” Bai Anjing teased, his cheek resting on a fist while his elbow was placed on the armrest.
Xie Rong blinked and looked at him. His expression was filled with subtle emotions as he said, “You bear a name unsuited to you.”
Bai Anjing leaned back and laughed. “That may very well be. But like it is for most people, I was not the one who picked my own name, so it can’t be helped.”
Something flashed in Xie Rong’s gaze and he looked away.
Bai Anjing watched him with hooded eyes, his lips quirked up slightly on one side. Gently gripping Xie Rong’s chin with a hand and turning his head to face him, Bai Anjing asked, “And what about you? What’s the name of such a charming young man then?”
Before Xie Rong could think, the answer came automatically to his lips, “Xie Rong, with Rong written using the character for glory, not lotus.” He almost bit off the last syllable as dismay flooded him. He hadn’t meant to supply this man with his real name just in case Bai Anjing went searching for his identity before he could finish what he had to do here. But the way Bai Anjing had asked it had reminded him too much of that time long ago…
Xie Rong had been a child then. After once again sneaking out of the room where he had to stay confined to his bed all the time due to his bad health, he ended up stumbling into a particularly large puddle of murky water in one of the less visited parts of the Xie residence.
That was when he met a certain boy for the first time, someone who he’d only heard of till then.
After carefully helping him up from the puddle and squeezing out as much water as he could out of his clothes, that boy with tousled black hair, smooth white skin, and a playful expression had asked him his name much in the same manner as Bai Anjing had now. With eyes half-lidded and lips hooked up on one side in an enigmatic smile, he prodded, “And what’s the name of such a cute little kid?”
Xie Rong blinked up at him with caution. “You mean…me?”
The boy grinned. “Yes, you. What’s your name?”
The boy reacted by ruffling his wet hair and teasing, “‘Rong’ as in lotus? Was that why you were in the water when I found you?” Laughing cheerfully at his own joke, his eyes squeezed into crescents, he then said, “In the future, I’m sure you’ll grow up into someone pretty and elegant enough to do that name justice.”
Puffing up his cheeks, Xie Rong glared at the grinning boy and snarled with all the discontentment a sickly four-year-old could muster, “No. Father told me that the ‘Rong’ in my name means glory. Hmph!”
Seeing the indulgent look and merriment in the other boy’s eyes, Xie Rong only grew angrier. He turned around with a huff and ran away, ignoring the renewed laughter ringing out behind him. It was decided! He didn’t like this new brother!
In the meantime, Bai Anjing was also pondering. The name ‘Xie Rong’ left an echo in him as if he remembered it from somewhere. Even though the surname Xie or the given name Rong was not uncommon, this young man must be someone very important indeed to be able to make Bai Anjing remember his name even a little.
Bai Anjing recalled that there was a family with political inclinations and distantly related to the imperial household in the nearest city that bore the surname Xie. There was also a very well-to-do merchant family with the same surname a couple of towns over. This person called Xie Rong currently sitting in front of him could be from one of them. Bai Anjing decided to secretly dispatch his intelligence agent, Wan Yingyue, to find more about this Xie Rong. He needed to know whether he was a spy, a threat, or if anything from his background could get in the way of him taking the young man as a lover.
When he came out of his musings, Bai Anjing realized that Xie Rong was also lost in thoughts, his expression showing nostalgia and fond remembrance.
Bai Anjing’s eyes narrowed as he probed, “Tell me, do you have a lover?”
Brought out of his recollection, Xie Rong’s eyes flashed with amusement. Was this man getting jealous already? In a quiet voice, he answered, “No, but I have a husband.”
A sudden hush fell over the crowd surrounding them as they looked with wide eyes between their leader and this young man called Xie Rong.
The light in Bai Anjing’s eyes flickered. His gaze bored into the young man as he asked softly, “Oh? Is this husband of yours good to you?”
The steadiness in Xie Rong’s expression faltered. Love, loss, hurt, and a hope that had been crushed too many times swirled in his deep gaze. Xie Rong smiled humorlessly and asked, “Can a husband who has left me behind for years be counted as a good one?”
The audience around them almost gasped. The plot thickens! What would their leader do? Some of them brought out pouches of sunflower seeds to munch on as they held their breath and watched with gleaming gazes.
Bai Anjing looked at Xie Rong for a moment as if absorbing the extent of pain in the young man’s face. He then lifted a hand slowly, giving Xie Rong the chance to retreat if he wished to, before carefully cupping the young man’s jaw in his palm. Xie Rong didn’t move.
Bai Anjing’s thumb brushed the soft skin over his cheekbone a couple of times as if in comfort. “I am sorry that your husband does not have the eyes to see your worth or enough heart to cherish you. You have suffered enough waiting for him. Ah-Rong, as long as you let me, as long as you’re willing to give me a chance to show you that I can be better, I will treat you well. Will you allow me that honor and agree to become my lover?”
Despite the oppressive sorrow he felt, Xie Rong couldn’t help but be slightly amused. That Ah-Rong had rolled too smoothly off this man’s tongue. Then thinking about the rest of his words, he couldn’t help but give out a short laugh. This was…ridiculous.
“Ah-Rong?” Bai Anjing called. Hearing Xie Rong’s short bark of a laugh weighed with too many conflicting emotions, he couldn’t help but curse his husband. Because of that uncaring bastard and his folly, the person he’d finally wanted to take as his lover might not even be able to trust in men anymore!
But to everyone’s surprise, Xie Rong gave a soft sigh before meeting Bai Anjing’s gaze and saying, “Very well, I agree to give this a try. But…you will not force me in any way, be it physically or through verbal coercion.”
Bai Anjing’s eyes gleamed. He couldn’t help but smile widely and lean towards his new lover while nodding. “Yes, of course. That’s a given. I might look after these savages, but I’m definitely not one of them.”
Loud boos echoed in the hall as the others took exception to their leader poking fun at them. Some were even brave enough to throw the shells of the sunflower seeds they’d eaten at him, not knowing that they’d later be made to clean it up themselves by their petty leader.
But for now, despite all the ruckus and the reservations they held towards each other, nothing could diminish the quiet joy and hope beginning to bloom in Xie Rong’s and Bai Anjing’s hearts.