Jaejoong’s position on the top of the horse was hardly comfortable. He hung there sideways behind a rider, tied to the back of the saddle with strong, thin ropes with his stomach against the back of the animal, his arms tied behind his back and his legs dangling down against its flank. True to his spirit, Jaejoong’s resistance had prevented the nomads from making him walk next to the one of the packhorses, the way he once had on his first travel through the steppe. Moreover, all the packhorses had been loaded heavily since the caravan had only just begun its trip, so there had been no other possibility than to place him on the back of a riding horse. However, Jaejoong had had other plans than mounting a horse and sitting behind some nomad man compliantly. He had struggled, but in vain. It made him feel as if he had regressed back to that little boy of ten years earlier.
Jaejoong was starting to doubt the rationality of his earlier fight as he bounced uncontrollably against the horse’s back, blood rushing down to his head. Fortunately the horse didn’t seem to be accustomed to having this kind of burden on its back, and the rider Jaejoong had been appointed to seemed to be getting quite concerned. Jaejoong reckoned there was quite a chance he would be released from his uncomfortable riding position soon, as the nomads loved and valued their horses immensely, sometimes seemingly more than their wives and children. They would never subject them to any harm if they had any say in the matter.
Soon enough, the rider halted his horse, the motionlessness a welcomed relief to Jaejoong’s suffering abdomen. He felt the man hop down and step near to his head, letting down his long gown the nomads kept tied up to their hips with a tasselled string while riding.
“We have now travelled a distance long enough for you to be unable to find your way back,” he whispered into Jaejoong’s ear with a deep, velvet voice, drawing away his long hair. “And in case you need to be reminded even though you are on top of one right now, we have horses,” the rider patted the haunch of his horse next to Jaejoong’s head, “so you wouldn’t make it far anyway. I am going to take you down but if you make one wrong move you are back in your current position, and I swear the next rider will not be as agreeable as me.”
Jaejoong craned his neck, catching a glimpse of his guard. The man looked quite young, not much older than Jaejoong himself. His eyes were not as cold as the eyes of the ones that had captured him, but instead staring down at Jaejoong’s face with poorly hidden sympathy. Jaejoong nodded the best he could in his awkward position, and the man swiftly circled to the other side of his horse, next to Jaejoong’s legs.
“Your arms are remaining tied as is your mouth, nothing I can do about that, ghost courtesan,” the nomad said as he worked on the ropes holding Jaejoong up. Bracing himself for a fall, he was surprised when the nomad caught him before he rolled down and collided with the ground. The man helped him to stand up and Jaejoong cracked his joints gratefully, twisting his neck from side to side. The man glanced at him sideways as he moved further away to stroke the muzzle of his horse that seemed delighted to have been freed from its load.
Jaejoong watched the passing caravan with contemplation, pondering on how far he might make it if he just started running, and if there was any way to distract the nomads from his escape. But this time there was neither a market place full of people to hide amongst nor narrow alleyways to help him mislead his pursuers. Only vast steppe with small bushes and shallow mounds that might’ve been able to hide a child and maybe even his own slender body; but everyone would be able to see where he ran and easily follow his footsteps on the sand.
“No use in running, remember,” the nomad reminded him with a pointed look at his arms that were twisted behind his back. “That position won’t allow you to keep your balance for long either.”
There was a rather amused expression on the young man’s face. Jaejoong raised a questioning eyebrow at him and moved closer to the string of packhorses passing by.
“Too bad you’re muffled, you look like you might have a lot to say,” the man chirped, leaving his horse with a small pouch of water and walking closer to Jaejoong. “And as much as I’d like to exchange proper introductions, I guess I’ll have to go with ‘ghost courtesan’ for now. I am Baatarsaikhan by the way. You can call me just Baatar, although since you’re a northerner… I guess ‘brother’ is fine too.”
Jaejoong stared at the man, unable to understand his cheerful attitude. This person was holding him captive and wanted not only to introduce himself, but drop the formalities? Guessing his luck could be worse, he sat down on the sand, tumbling over as his lack of arms to balance himself with took him by surprise. The young nomad chuckled and approached him, taking a seat on the ground next to him.
“Quite a reputation you’ve built for yourself there, impressive I must say,” the man continued his chatter as he waited for his horse to gulp down the water he had placed in front of it. Jaejoong ignored him, rubbing his chin against his shoulder as he tried to ease the grip of his headscarf that was hanging around his neck, threatening to throttle him.
“Ah, let me,” Baatar said, slipping his callused hand on Jaejoong’s neck to loosen the headpiece. Jaejoong nodded at him curtly, put off by his politeness. The young man continued his one-sided conversation, prattling about Jaejoong’s fame that had reached even the nomads’ Great Camp in the far northeast.
The young man’s gabble was cut off when an older looking man stopped beside them, holding his horse in place as he eyed Baatar and Jaejoong disapprovingly.
“Having tea with your peer, eh? As long as you abstain from any funny business—you know what we took him along for,“ he bit out. “I think it’s time to wrap up your little picnic and start moving!”
“Ah, you know my beloved isn’t meant for loading! Allow her a moment of rest, this sack of goods has been bouncing on her back for hours already!” Baatar defended himself jovially, standing up to tend to his horse once again. The older nomad grunted gruffly in response, resuming his ride forward.
Jaejoong remained sitting, watching Baatar tenderly ready his horse for departure. After finishing, he walked back to Jaejoong, wrenching him up from the ground.
“So, ghost courtesan, you seem to have settled down so I’ll give you two options: either I tie you to a packhorse and you walk, or you ride with me.”
He started dragging Jaejoong along, pausing to look at him expectantly when they reached his horse.
“Oh right, you can’t talk. Let me make the decision for you; you’re riding nicely in front of me.”
In a few swift movements, he helped Jaejoong up and climbed to sit behind him, grabbing the reins on both sides of Jaejoong’s tied arms. As he urged his horse forward, Jaejoong felt a nasty wind blow past him. He blamed it for the tears prickling in his eyes as he sat there stiffly, worrying about Yunho.
He should have known better than to leave the ship while Yunho was gone. However, Jaejoong had been so fed up with the boy’s recent insolence that he had decided he wouldn’t wait for him to come back, triumphantly boasting with the goods he brought back from the town. He couldn’t decipher the boy’s sudden need to contribute, the only reason he could manage was that Yunho wasn’t content with the amount of food he brought back from the caravans. Determined to finally persuade the younger boy to drop his trips to the town, Jaejoong had followed the caravan whose trail Yunho had tracked back to the opposite direction. Himself, Jaejoong was still too afraid to go there with the slave mark on his shoulder: catching him and selling him again would be too easy. Meeting a caravan in the middle of the steppe was a whole different story: they rarely had enough supplies to take unforeseen travellers in to hinder their journey.
However, what he was unaware of was that the reputation of “the ghost courtesan of the southern steppe” was not a shushed rumour only circling amongst the nomad caravans trading with the southern capital anymore, but a disputed tale that had reached far beyond. With the caravans traveling widely and far, in just a few years’ time stories of a young man who appeared from plain sand and his otherworldly beauty had spread wherever they went.
He had been welcomed in familiar fashion as he snuck to speak with the sleaziest-looking man he could find, ready to negotiate of an appropriate payment for his services. The second he had settled on the ground, he was not alone with the man anymore. He had fought tooth and nail, Yunho’s face before his eyes, but his famished body could only do so much against the band of burly nomads holding him down.
The resistance seemed to have somewhat surprised the men as they were at a loss about what to do with him. They had tried threatening him and bargaining with him, but every time a palm left his mouth he started snarling profanities at them until someone muffled him again. He was so troublesome to handle the men had given up on making him travel like a normal slave, pushing him onto the youngest and most inferior amongst their group.
To Jaejoong’s utmost luck Baatar seemed to be a good man; and despite the fundamental distrust he had held against all nomads since his childhood, even Jaejoong couldn’t stay cold to him for long. The young nomad kept entertaining him with his funny stories from all over the steppe accompanied by congenial giggling and the most ridiculous faces Jaejoong had ever seen anyone pull. Many a time, he would describe a happening in the north, guessing Jaejoong’s homeland from his skin colour, and Jaejoong would find himself listening eagerly, anxious to hear any news that might reveal to him something of the fate of his family.
Other times, his stories would centre around the southern lands, but he soon learnt not to talk about water or the difficulties the caravans encountered while trying to find sources of it. The moment his speech steered towards such a topic Jaejoong’s normally fiery eyes would glaze over, covered with an emotionless layer of ice. Intrigued, Baatar avoided the subject but couldn’t help but wonder how his life had been before the capture to cause such a reaction in him.
Every time they passed a human settlement Jaejoong was made to wear his headscarf again, covering most of his face as the nomads went about the market places of the villages and towns, boasting how they had caught the legendary ghost courtesan. Jaejoong didn’t really mind, as the occasions allowed him walk and stretch his limbs stiffened from all the riding while the nomads dragged him around, eager to show off their treasure. Baatar usually stalked after the party with his lips pursed and his brow engaged in a discontent frown. As a nomad what he valued most was freedom: the vast steppe under a sky even vaster, and the right to freely choose any direction where to ride. He wished the same for everybody, and unable to understand the enjoyment in being capable of making someone obey one’s every command, he took no joy in parading Jaejoong around like a trained animal of a wandering performer.
The caravan wasn’t one for slave trade and since they had no guarded place in their formation to put Jaejoong at night, he was tied at his wrists and ankles every evening, a longer rope connecting him to Baatar’s waist. The other nomads had laughed at them, teasing Baatar of hogging all the pleasure to himself. The young nomad just gave them a greasy smile and winked his eye at Jaejoong, to which the others responded with excited hollers. When they finally lay down for the night, Jaejoong eyed him suspiciously, desperately trying to keep his distance, but he just released an amused snort.
“Rest assured, you are the most beautiful man I have ever encountered, but I have no intention of getting my head detached from my shoulders. Besides, I have someone at the Great Camp already…”
Jaejoong inched closer, curious. Baatar glanced at his expectant eyes, a small smile gracing his lips.
“Ha-ha, you like this kind of stuff, don’t you,” his eyes twinkled as Jaejoong nodded cautiously. Baatar squinted around them, studying their surroundings for any watchful eyes. Seeing none, as everybody had already retired to their tents or guard positions around the caravan, he turned his face back to Jaejoong, his expression grave.
“You better keep your voice down,” he whispered, “unless you want to spend the following nights next to the fat ass.”
Jaejoong shivered at the thought; he knew whom Baatar was talking about. The head of the caravan was an opinionated and righteous man but almost religiously devoted to the orders of the chief of all nomad clans. He wasn’t too enthusiastic about young people and their follies, as he called it, refusing to listen to the advice of any man younger than himself. As the eldest of the caravan, this meant he ruled in quite an authoritarian manner.
Baatar, with his easy-going personality, bore an immense distaste for the man who was quite the opposite of himself. Jaejoong couldn't say that he had any soft spot for the chief either, as it was him who had organised his capture, and him who was keeping him captive. It didn’t help that the man had a massive, curly beard that he kept scratching—Jaejoong was quite sure it must have been infested with fleas.
Baatar propped himself up on his elbows, reaching his hand around Jaejoong’s head to untie the piece of fabric covering his mouth, restricting his speech. The cloth fell of, revealing Jaejoong’s suffering mouth as he rushed to wet his dry lips with his tongue.
“Thanks,” he whispered. Baatar was stunned by the husky voice emitting from his lips; somehow he had imagined that the beautiful male would have a more feminine voice as all he had heard until now where muffled groans and whimpers.
“No problem, mate,” he smiled back, “let’s just make sure no one sees or hears this, eh?”
“So…” Jaejoong started uncertainly, using his voice for the first time in weeks. “What’s the name?”
Baatar smiled distantly as his mind travelled to another land, the place where their caravan had come from and was now again heading to.
“Her name is no name,” he murmured with his voice deep and soft, Jaejoong’s wide eyes fixated on his features that were melting into a languid, blissful smile. “She was born to parents who had lost three children before her; to mislead the evil spirits seeking to take away all their offspring they denied her a blessed name. That’s how much my dear was loved even before she first came to this world.”
Jaejoong felt his eyes gloss over as he listened to Baatar’s quiet but vivid description of his beloved. Before he noticed, his breath was hitching and tears streamed down his face. Unable to wipe his own face as his hands were firmly tied, he tried to hide his sobbing from the other man, blinking his eyes furiously. His attempts were in vain, as the moment the young nomad glanced at his prisoner he noticed the silent weeping.
“I reckon you had someone too, there at the steppe,” he murmured, gently raising his hand to wipe Jaejoong’s cheeks, continuing to stroke them even after the salty waters were gone. Jaejoong stared at him with miserable eyes full of regret.
“Maybe it was someone you were…doing that for,” Baatar’s voice wavered as his own eyes started to glisten. He had always been a sensitive man, to the degree his own beloved often made fun of him for it. Looking at this desperate being lying next to him, repressed and bound, having been forced to leave behind someone precious to him, it was impossible for Baatar not to feel sincere empathy.
Jaejoong tried to calm down, taking in a few deep breaths as he answered Baatar.
“It’s not the same as yours but… h-he was my life.”
Unable to contain himself, he started crying again, and Baatar was half-compelled, half-willing to slide his hand around Jaejoong’s neck and bury the sobbing man’s face onto his own shoulder in order to stifle the noise. Jaejoong’s tied hands involuntarily grasped the flowing fabric of Baatar’s gown, seeking consolation in a person he felt the heavens must have sent to him in his moment of despair.