After they had decided to become lovers and the hall had turned rowdy, Bai Anjing finally remembered to remove Xie Rong’s restraints and the pair retreated to a small side room for more privacy. Bai Anjing ordered a lavish meal to be brought to share with his beloved. The newly-minted couple then sat down and waited for the food by the table.
Settled side-by-side, Xie Rong’s gaze wandered over the simple room that seemed to have nothing but this rectangular wooden table and four chairs in it while Bai Anjing’s gaze stayed fixed on Xie Rong. The light from the lone window to the side cast the room in the more saturated light of evening, setting parts of it aglow as if burnished with gold. Under the set of table and chairs spread a thick and large carpet of fur cut in an irregular shape. While entering, he and Bai Anjing had left their boots by the room’s doorway, so Xie Rong could feel the carpet’s plush softness under his feet and curled his toes into it.
Letting out a sigh in comfort, Xie Rong turned to look at Bai Anjing and spoke, “We might have become lovers, but we seem to be little more than strangers. It would be sensible to learn more about each other. Do you mind if I ask you questions to get to know you better?”
Bai Anjing shrugged and smiled. “By all means, go ahead, Ah-Rong.”
Xie Rong nodded. “Thank you. Then, to start, may I know what you were doing before coming to this organization and what led you to join here?” His gaze turned incisive and keen as he carefully studied every small twitch of emotion on the other man’s face.
Bai Anjing looked at Xie Rong with hooded eyes and lied smoothly while wearing a casual smile, “I was a woodcutter living in one of the small villages to the southwest of the Baizhu region. On a day four years ago, I came across people from the Qifeng organization while working and ended up joining them.”
But even as he spoke with a smiling expression, Bai Anjing felt his head throbbing with remembered images: Running through the forest; low branches slicing his skin as he rushed through them; the scenery flashing by so swiftly that it was nothing but thready blurs of green and grey; the agonizing, insistent pain like a stake being pounded into the back of his head with a hammer; a hundred other, smaller aches and pains sending out twinges of agony from the respective parts of him they’d claimed; hot blood slipping down the back of his head, down his nape, and into his collar, mixing with sweat; the surprisingly quiet movement of his footsteps contrasting with the loud thudding of his heartbeat; his blood surging through his veins quickly while singing danger, danger, urging him to run, hide, find safety…
Xie Rong’s calm and pleasant voice cut through the memories and brought him back to the present, “Well, then may I ask how you came to your position within these four years?”
Bai Anjing blinked to clear his mind and saw that Xie Rong was peering at him with a frown, his gaze searching. Leaning back and settling comfortably in his chair, Bai Anjing shrugged carefreely. More lies easily rolled off his tongue, “I worked hard, rose up in ranks, challenged the previous leader, and won. Now, I’m here.”
“I…see.” Xie Rong’s gaze bored into him for a while before he resumed his questioning, “Have you ever killed anyone before?”
Smiling again, Bai Anjing replied, “I don’t know if Ah-Rong will believe me, what with this organization’s reputation, but for the past four years while I was here, I only killed once.” Shrugging, he explained, “I don’t like taking life carelessly or seeing someone else do it.”
Xie Rong tilted his head and asked thoughtfully, “Did that one person you killed deserve it?”
Bai Anjing’s eyes burned while focusing somewhere far away. He nodded. “Yes.”
Reaching out, Xie Rong gently placed his hand on Bai Anjing’s tense one on the table. Patting it once, Xie Rong said, “Then it’s fine.”
Turning his hand, Bai Anjing curled his fingers between Xie Rong’s and held it. His smile was wry as he asked, “Are you sure it’s alright for you to believe me just like that?”
Xie Rong pondered about pulling out his hand from the other man’s grasp, but decided to let it be. He looked up at Bai Anjing and chuckled. “Yes. For me, you are the most trustworthy person here.”
Bai Anjing’s eyes darkened. Though he knew that Xie Rong’s trust towards him was not all-encompassing, he still felt a pleased warmth bloom inside him at those words.
“If you’re done with your questions, I would like to ask you some things as well,” Bai Anjing said.
Xie Rong shook his head with a chuckle. “As much as I’d love to answer your questions, I would rather not. If I made known my family, your people might decide to ask them for ransom for my return. I do not wish to burden my family with that.” Of course, that was only an excuse Xie Rong had come up with on the spot to refuse.
Bai Anjing gave him an amused look and shook his head, but didn’t say anything. In a way, he thought it fitting that both of them began this courtship with lies about themselves. And yet he could feel that their attraction towards each other had increased imperceptibly as if just the time spent together had been enough to bring them closer.
However, that still didn’t change the fact that Bai Anjing didn’t feel that he could leave Xie Rong alone lest he gathered information about his hideout or sent that information out later through carrier pigeons and the like.
Flashing a flirtatious smile at Xie Rong, he said, “Now that we’ve learned something about one another—you more than me in the end—let’s talk about living arrangements.” Retrieving his palm from the young man’s and rubbing his hands together as if in anticipation, he proposed, “Since we have decided to be lovers, I think it’s only logical to ask you to stay with me and share my bed. Of course, I won’t lay my hands on you against your will.” And this will also help me keep a better eye on you, he continued in his mind.
Xie Rong pressed his lips together and bent his head to hide his expression. “I-I… No. That… That’s too intimate. I would like a separate room, if you can spare one.”
Bai Anjing saw that the pair of ears poking out from the young man’s hair were glowing a bright red and chuckled quietly. Was his Ah-Rong feeling bashful? Deciding to let it be, he sighed and said, “Very well, then. I’ll have someone prepare a room for you.”
Xie Rong’s head came back up. Bai Anjing was delighted to note that despite his composure, a soft flush was still painted over his cheeks. In a low voice, Xie Rong expressed, “Thank you. I…will think about moving in with you if our relationship and the trust between us develop further.”
Bai Anjing nodded. “That’s reasonable.” Unable to help himself, he reached out a hand and playfully rubbed Xie Rong’s head. “I’ll wait for Ah-Rong to feel ready then.”
Xie Rong shot a glare at him and pulled his hand away from his head while the color in his face deepened. Bai Anjing laughed, an indulgent sound. Something in Xie Rong’s expression softened and he turned away.
Just then, the door to the room opened to let in a stream of people carrying steaming dishes. The meal had finally arrived.
Without much fuss, the people who had brought the food placed it in on the table, taking care of position the dishes they knew their leader liked near him. Once the table was groaning with the weight of all the food covering its surface, the people from the kitchens finally withdrew, leaving Xie Rong and Bai Anjing alone again.
Without much ado, Bai Anjing took up a pair of chopsticks to start piling his bowl with a few choice delicacies before starting the meal. However, Xie Rong remained still, staring intently at a certain dish that had been brought in last. Just a look at it made Xie Rong’s heart thump with dread.
It was snow pea soup.
Nestled in the white porcelain bowl, the chicken broth was thick, golden brown, and clear. Leisurely curls of steam rose up from its surface, spreading the tantalizing aroma of rich chicken broth, ginger, garlic, a hint of soy sauce, with other, subtler scents intertwining with it. Sitting at the bottom of the bowl, the plump and fleshy pieces of mushroom almost blended with the color of the liquid. Cubes of tofu—tender, juicy, and white—soaked in the broth, absorbing its flavor until it was completely saturated. In contrast, fresh green bits of snow peas and green onions lay spread evenly over the tofu, adding vivid color and crispness to the soup’s appearance.
By all means, it looked and smelled delicious enough to make one’s taste buds tingle with anticipation. But Xie Rong glared at it as if it was something concocted out of noxious toxins by the devil itself.
Seeing this, Bai Anjing paused his eating and pretended to shiver in fear. “If the pea soup has offended my lord somehow, then I beg for mercy on its behalf and pray that you stop roasting it with your all-powerful glare of supreme displeasure, lest it be burnt to a crisp and be wasted.”
Xie Rong turned his ‘all-powerful glare of supreme displeasure’ on Bai Anjing.
Bai Anjing laughed and reached for the soup. “Fine, fine. No need to give me that smoldering look and make me feel all tingly. If you dislike it that much, give it here. I’ll finish it up for you.”
Something akin to panic flittered through Xie Rong’s eyes and he snatched the dish away before Bai Anjing could touch it. “You― Don’t touch it! That pea soup is…i-it’s evil! I’ll be the one to eat it!”
Bai Anjing raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t thought that just a bowl of soup could discompose this person to this degree. “You don’t have to force yourself. I’m actually looking forward to eating it. It’s been a while since I had peas.”
Xie Rong grew flustered as he held the bowl of soup even further away from Bai Anjing. “No! Th-That’s not―” Xie Rong stopped and took in a deep breath before letting it out. In a calmer tone, he said, “If you promise to leave the entire dish to me, I…I’ll agree to share your room and bed with you.”
Bai Anjing frowned. “Are you sure?”
Xie Rong decisively nodded.
Shrugging, Bai Anjing easily agreed, his smile wide, “Alright, then. You can have it. I don’t like peas anyway. I actually feel a bit revolted by them.”
“…” Xie Rong just stared at him.
Chuckling, Bai Anjing went on, “I might not like them, but I’m glad those detestable things still ended up helping me.” Wagging a finger at Xie Rong, he said cheerfully, “You can’t go back on your word now, Ah-Rong. You’ll be sleeping beside me tonight.”
Xie Rong sputtered in disbelief at this man’s audacity and turned away with a harrumph. Glaring at the bowl of snow pea soup, he demolished those blasted peas to vent his displeasure at having been fooled while Bai Anjing’s quiet laughter accompanied him.