The night Jaejoong first spoke with Baatar was the first and the last time the young nomad saw him cry; Jaejoong made sure of that. He treated the night as a burial, concealing every memory of his previous life into the furthest possible corners of his mind. Yunho had proved to him, over and over again, that he was perfectly capable of providing for himself; and as much his stubbornness had disappointed Jaejoong at the time, he was immensely grateful for the knowledge as the caravan travelled further northeast. Worrying was futile. Entrusting Yunho to all his forefathers, Jaejoong left him behind just like he had once relinquished his family in the north. It was inevitable if he didn’t want to lose all his will to stay alive.
The travel had passed its halfway point, and the terrain they were passing through was scarce but still more fertile than the desert in the south. The colour of the yellow ground reminded Jaejoong of his childhood, and he relished in the feeling of dry grass every night as they could finally sleep peacefully, without sand permeating their clothes and all other belongings.
When the last human settlement they had passed was behind a great distance, one and a half months’ worth of travelling, Baatar managed to convince the head of the caravan that tying Jaejoong’s wrists and mouth further was unnecessary. Running away would have hardly resulted in anything other than dying of thirst, and even before that, he would have been easily recaptured. As they approached the Great Camp of the nomads, caravans passing to the opposite direction became more and more frequent, and often they could see a lone rider hurrying in the horizon.
Regardless of his liberated state, Jaejoong preferred keeping to himself. As soon as his gag was removed, many of the nomads tried approaching him and questioning him about his mysterious origins, but most of their efforts he only rewarded with either a defiant silence and downcast eyes or one of his fiery glowers. Baatar remained at his side faithfully; by day they rode together, and by night, they slept side by side, tied to each other as always.
Jaejoong knew the day was a special one as soon as he woke up. Baatar was sitting next to him cross-legged, looking down apologetically with a beautifully embroidered, light blue and deep turquoise gown in his hands.
“May you ride in peace under the risen sun,” he greeted the sleepy man, reaching over to untie the knots at his ankles and wrists. As soon as he was released, Jaejoong sat up, rubbing the sore, chafed skin of his wrists. No matted how many nights he was tied up, he never got used to the restricting feeling.
“What is going on, brother?” he asked suspiciously, eyeing the gown on Baatar’s lap. The man was playing idly with the decorated hem, admiring the skilled needlework. Baatar had never worn anything quite so exquisite himself, and even if he felt no desire to dress himself in the particular gown as it was a garment meant for women, he couldn’t help but to wonder if he would ever have the chance to dress in such refined, expensive clothing.
“Brother?” Jaejoong placed his palm carefully on the man’s knee to wake the other up from his deep thought. He caressed the gown gently with his fingers, knowing well it was meant for him. There were no women travelling in the caravan and the only man subjected to such clothing was himself.
“You must know how much I appreciate it when you call me your brother,” Baatar sighed and raised his eyes to meet Jaejoong’s gaze. “One day we will ride together to your western home.”
“I pray to forefathers with all my heart for that day to come,” Jaejoong whispered and smiled, knowing well how dangerous it was for Baatar to utter such things. In the months they had been travelling together, they had grown close, and as reluctant as Jaejoong was to admit, he considered the nomad man a friend. How unpredictable were the ways of life; all his life, he had been thrown around by these people, used and sold, and now one of them was his only holdfast in the strange land he had been taken to.
Baatar sighed, his shoulders slumping as he gathered the fabric from his lap and folded it on Jaejoong’s thighs, smoothing out the creases on the soft silk, regret enclosing his slouched form.
“We are reaching the Great Camp today,” he announced with a strained voice. “You are required to wear this when you meet the Grand Chief. I will be escorting you to his residence.”
“Be joyful, brother,” Jaejoong said, resting his hand on the other’s shoulder and squeezing it reassuringly. “Is today not the day when you meet your beloved again?”
“Yes,” Baatar said with a dark tone in his voice, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. “And it might as well be the day I see your face for the last time.”
Despite the man’s grave state of mind, Jaejoong felt like laughing at the other’s dramatic display of emotion.
“The Great Camp cannot be that large, can it? I have been to the southern capital city and even it wasn’t that grand,” he teased the other, fiddling with the gown on his lap, raising it slightly to try it against his chest. “I am sure we will run into each other no matter how much effort I put into trying to avoid you and your flat humour.”
“You don’t understand, Jaejoong,” Baatar’s overwrought tone startled the other man. “The Grand Chief prefers keeping his women under tight control. Once you step inside that tent…”
“Well I am not a woman, am I,” Jaejoong answered curtly and stood up, refusing to meet Baatar’s desperate gaze. “If you are going to act like that, you might as well go tend to your horse. If you are willing to overcome that mindless worry of yours, you may help me dress. If I am going to wear this attire, I might as well look the part.”
Baatar sighed and stood up, knowing Jaejoong well enough to know he was the most stubborn creature that had ever graced the earth with its presence. Jaejoong had already opened the loose braid his hair had been tied in and was carding his fingers through it as he lacked a proper comb. Detaching Jaejoong’s hands from his hair, Baatar took the long locks into his own hands, untangling them the best he could. Jaejoong quickly pulled the simple, tattered gown he had been wearing since his capture over his head and covered his naked upper body with the elegant blue robe. He pulled on the accompanying white pants, and with Baatar’s help, they draped the headpiece over his hair. It was the longest one he had ever worn, reaching around his waist.
While Baatar was tucking last of the unruly strands of his black hair under the scarf, Jaejoong seized the other’s face between his hands, forcing the man to meet his gaze.
“Don’t worry so much about me, brother,” Jaejoong said, his voice slightly muffled by the folds of gold decorated silk covering his whole face except for his wide, sharp eyes. He kept Baatar’s head still between his palms, preventing the other from steering his eyes away. “You couldn’t even imagine what kind of situations I have managed to overcome before… Believe in me a little. We will meet each other soon again.”
Baatar sighed and took hold of Jaejoong’s hands, lowering them away from his face. He gave Jaejoong a long, unfathomable glance before turning away and walking over to his horse.
They rode together in silence, Jaejoong’s gown gathered up on his lap as he sat in front of the brooding man. Baatar’s horse was exceptionally placed in front of the long line of packhorses. The head of the caravan had come to them before they had set off for the day, and poorly hiding his intrigue for the silk-covered man, he had delivered the riding order, the most valuable load of their trade situated at the very front.
Jaejoong had lived in the steppe for the last ten years, surrounded by vast land on all sides, passing caravans the only human contact he had had, and the shipwreck the only human construction he had seen in a long time. As the caravan finally reached the Great Camp, he completely forgot about Baatar’s troubled mind and his own approaching unknown fate. The first thing Jaejoong could see were thousands of horses, grazing the steppe relaxedly with young boys running around them, immersed in their games rather than in herding the animals. Most of the horses were the sturdy, brown kind that the nomads used for packhorses, but just the sheer amount of them made Jaejoong gape in wonder. Scattered amongst them were finer individuals, majestic riding horses with well-kept, glimmering hair coats, some black as coal and others white as cream. None of the horses were restricted with fences as they gaited around with only numerous children looking after them.
If the amount of horses was off-putting, the amount of people was truly disconcerting. Jaejoong thanked the scarf covering his face more than once, as he was sure he was utterly failing at controlling the look of wonder spreading throughout his face. True to its name, the Great Camp was nothing like the southern capital Jaejoong had briefly lived in as a child. Most of the structures were mobile nomad tents, the ensemble they formed an animate entity. Jaejoong spotted only a few real houses, low and humble buildings made of imported wood.
Most of the members of their caravan had stopped at the outer skirts of the Great Camp to unload the packhorses of the goods they had brought from the faraway southern capital. Only Baatar, the head, and a few other selected men continued their travel amidst the tents, heading for the heart of the colossal tent city. Many of the people they passed stilled in their tracks, pausing to stare at the passing riders that were led by a horse carrying a regular-looking young nomad man and a figure covered in fine blue and turquoise silk. For the first time in his life, Jaejoong saw actual nomad women; and to his great surprise, barely any of them were concealing their faces in the manner he himself had been forced to do many a time during their travel throughout the steppe. He let his eyes trail over the people crowding around the narrow route they were riding on, observing bearded men who were wearing the familiar nomad gown, and women who were dressed in very similar gowns accompanied by a headscarf to cover their hair with.
“Before we dismount the horse, I will tie you to my waist again,” Baatar suddenly whispered into Jaejoong’s ear, his arms holding the reins tightening on both sides of the man sitting in front of him. “Don’t look any man in the eye. There are too many people in here. Not all of them know where we are taking you and why, and they might not understand to keep themselves at bay.”
Jaejoong nodded, uneasy with all the caution surrounding his arrival. Baatar’s wary attitude was finally starting to rub off on him.
“Don’t worry, brother, I am the master of escaping,” Jaejoong muttered back, craning his neck backwards in order for Baatar to be able to hear his words. The man shook his head slightly.
“I have seen you fight off six men at the same time for a considerable while but this is the last place you want to get too self-assured. Even the women of the Great Camp cannot find their way around occasionally; the streets are a subject to constant recomposing. If I lose you now, I might never find you again… Not to mention, I will be relieved of the burden of carrying my head on top of my shoulders,” he explained in rushed tones, trying to make Jaejoong understand he was being serious. “The moment we dismount in front of the Grand Chief’s residence there will be servants coming out to announce us. Do not raise your eyes. The situation at the Great Camp is inflammable at the moment.”
Jaejoong considered his words for a moment, before turning his face towards Baatar again, sensing there was another issue, bigger than his expected arrival, boiling under the surface.
“This has nothing to do with me, does it,” he murmured in a low voice, feeling Baatar’s soft sigh against his cheek.
“No. No, it does not,” the man answered before stopping his horse and quickly winding a rope around Jaejoong’s waist under his headpiece. “Remember what I told you.”
Baatar hopped down to the ground and let his gown hang down, helping Jaejoong to dismount after him. They were standing in front of a large tent, the largest Jaejoong had ever seen. The size of the structure made it seem like a stable house at a first glance, but looking at it closely, the walls were made of coarse canvas imprinted with ancient nomad writing.
They stood still in front of the tent’s door for an indefinite moment, the tension emitting from the surrounding crowd palpable in the air around them. Jaejoong was starting to get jumpy; watching Baatar grip the rope tying them together with white knuckles did nothing to ease his nerves. The few men from the same caravan that had been riding with them dismounted their horses as well, glancing around the crowd warily as they came to stand behind the two men waiting for the tent’s door to open.
Finally, the edges of the tent’s door’s hem were elevated and a petite young woman whizzed out, followed by two others, all dressed in similar grey and yellow gowns and headscarves. Jaejoong raised his head slightly, and during the short moment it took Baatar to place his hand on the back of Jaejoong’s head to push his face back down, he met the first woman’s eyes. She glanced at him with a contemplative expression in her large grey orbs, and before his chin was propped back down against his chest, Jaejoong could catch a glimpse of the woman’s eyes darting from him to the man standing by his side. With senses heightened by the adrenaline rush running through his veins due to his nervousness, he could hardly miss the way the woman’s eyes glinted, her observant mask melting into gentleness for a mere second before calculation returned, remedying the momentary relapse.
It was not hard to tell who the woman was. Increasingly curious of Baatar’s beloved, Jaejoong tried peeking under his scarf discreetly, but Baatar didn’t remove the hand he had on the back of Jaejoong’s head.
“I told you to keep your eyes down,” the man hissed, and Jaejoong was not quite sure anymore if it was only the crowd around them grating the young nomad’s nerves. The petite woman had slipped to stand on Jaejoong’s other side, her head barely reaching above his shoulder. The other two women held the edges of the tent’s massive door up, just enough for a few people to slip in but not enough for the large crowd around them to actually see what was going on inside. The first woman who was standing next to Jaejoong raised her voice suddenly, and with a melodious, vibrant tone, she recited a few sentences in a language Jaejoong could not understand. All the nomads he had met during his life had been men working in the caravans, a lot always perfectly conversational in Jaejoong’s native language. But now, thousands of miles east of Jaejoong’s homeland, he suddenly understood it might not be the case with the people permanently living in the Great Camp.
Confused and perplexed, he only realised he was supposed to walk in when he felt a tug in the rope tied around his waist. Baatar’s hand had left the back of his head, and after he was dragged inside hurriedly, the tent’s door closing behind them as soon as he had entered, Baatar quickly untied the rope as well.
Jaejoong braved to raise his gaze, studying his surroundings with care. They were standing inside some kind of narrow entranceway, the insides of the tent quite dim. The women that had opened the door for them stepped forward to stand by another door, one separating the entranceway from a larger space.
“Quickly, follow my example,” Jaejoong heard Baatar whisper, the voice coming from a strangely low location even though Baatar was an inch or two taller than him.
Glancing besides him, Jaejoong saw that Baatar had lowered his body onto the floor and was hurriedly positioning himself to lie down on his stomach.
“What are you doing, brother?” Jaejoong enquired, puzzled, turning his questioning gaze from Baatar to the woman standing now on Baatar’s other side, still steady on her feet. The young woman met his eyes, an encouraging small smile on her lips but she made no move to answer Jaejoong’s question.
“What? Bowing down before my Grand Chief of course! No man is allowed to have his head raised higher than the Grand Chief while graced by his presence,” Baatar hissed, tugging at Jaejoong’s hem. “Lie down immediately! They cannot hold back the opening of the door forever.”
“And how short might this mighty chief of yours be?” Jaejoong mocked, gripping his gown and forcefully pulling its hem out of Baatar’s grasp. “Must be the height of a babe if you have to lower your head so far down, brother.”
“You damned fool, this is not the right time to argue about this, we are in the Grand Chief’s residence itself damn it! What if I only sit down and when they open the door, he’s sitting down as well? There goes my head! Better be safe than sorry! Lie down, now!” Baatar was getting desperate as he took hold of Jaejoong’s ankle, trying to force him down.
“So this is what you do here in the Great Camp, crawl around like worms of the earth whenever the Grand Chief decides to take a morning stroll?” Jaejoong continued, easily kicking off the hold of the man lying down.
“We can talk about this another time! You boor, he’s a Horse King! When he’s outside, he’s on a horse! Of course we can walk around like normal people, what do you take us for— Lie down, Jaejoo—” Baatar was silenced when Jaejoong placed the sole of his foot on top of the other’s back for a brief second before he stepped away from the man, out of his reach. Baatar propped himself up on his elbows, craning his neck as he searched Jaejoong’s eyes.
“So they are going to make me go in, dressed as a woman but bowing down as a man?” he stated with an ice-cold voice, and although Baatar was quite sure the ire in it was not meant for him, it made him shiver. “The best of both worlds, I guess,” he continued, bitterness seeping into his words.
“Jaejoong, listen to me,” Baatar tried again, with a softer tone. “Raising your head higher than the Grand Chief’s is punishable by death for our people, only women—”
“But I am not one of your people, brother,” Jaejoong hissed, cutting him off. “I have nothing to lose. Not anymore. And I am not bowing down to this man, not now, not ever. He already took everything away from me. If he wants my head as well, he shall have it.”
Baatar stared up at the man’s immovable form, but Jaejoong eyes were once again glazed over, as if he was staring into a distant future or perhaps a distant past. Helplessly, Baatar turned his head around to seek assistance in the woman standing on his other side. To his great surprise, her eyes were fixed on Jaejoong’s concealed figure as well. The expression on her face was almost as set as Jaejoong’s, but to Baatar, it held in it, familiarity. Unlike Jaejoong’s sudden stiffness, it was readable and open to Baatar’s eyes.
After a few moments’ consideration, the woman turned her eyes back from Jaejoong, meeting Baatar’s. She gave him a slight nod, and at that, the man lay back down, placing both of his hands on the ground in front of him, resting his forehead on top of them. The young woman faced the front and cleared her throat before reciting a few sentences in a loud voice in the same manner she had outside the tent, and the women standing on both sides of the door started folding the fabric up.
Jaejoong stared forward, intent on facing whatever was to come with his head held high. He was suddenly reminded of all the things he had lost because of the nomads; the faces of his parents and sisters and other relatives came up in front of his eyes, especially the gentle, round face of his cousin, the young fellow whose fate Jaejoong was regrettably unsure of. He could see the fire again; the all-consuming fire the nomads had lit up within his birth village.
But when Yunho’s narrow face appeared, defiant oval eyes staring at him, he pushed everything out of his mind again. He had held one funeral and it would be enough. He was in the Great Camp now, thousands of miles away, where there was no place for Yunho’s face.
Jaejoong closed his eyes, the muscles of his neck tensing and his head trembling slightly with all the force he was fighting his past with. He gripped his fists onto his gown, released a deep breath and willed his eyes open, only to see the door was fully open already.
The tent was enormous, the room illuminated with countless small paper lanterns, giving the space a soft feeling as if all sharp corners had been carefully rounded off. The floor was covered with colourful carpets, scattered with pillows of all sizes.
Right in the middle of the large room was a man, comfortably positioned on top of a white divan. His eyes were directly on Jaejoong, his gaze inexorably hard. Jaejoong had met countless of men, some good, some bad, but he had never met a man with such an intimidating presence. Event though the man looked rather defenceless, lying down in the middle of luxurious fabrics, Jaejoong was quite sure his appearance was deceptive. The nomads were known for their war craft, and even if the man looked like he had never brandished a sabre in his life, he could not have been able to keep his status as the Horse King if the case was such. The nomads were also known for the constantly on-going struggle for power amongst the few strongest clans.
The chief stared at him for a long while, unmoving. Everyone else remained motionless as well, Baatar lying on the floor on his stomach, his forehead against the soft carpet. The women were rooted to the ground as well, each of them with downcast eyes as a sign of respect. There were more women in the room, all still as a statue and with lowered gazes, dressed in the same gowns as the servants sent out to announce them. The only other men in the room, the chief’s guards Jaejoong assumed, were kneeling on both sides of the divan, hands readily on the hilts of their swords, emotionless eyes on Jaejoong.
For a moment, Jaejoong felt like the only moving thing in the room were his own eyes roaming over the refined interior of the chief’s tent. Then, with a magnificent grunt, the chief sat up and raised his arm, beckoning for Jaejoong. The other servant women behind him started moving again, and Jaejoong turned his head to look for aid in the woman standing on the other side of Baatar. The young servant met his helpless gaze and nodded slightly, so slightly Jaejoong would have missed it with a single blink of his eyes. The woman then nudged Baatar’s side with her foot. The man raised his head slightly, peeking into the room before quickly scampering up right, taking on a kneeling position on the floor. Jaejoong watched his display of submission, his brow furrowing underneath his scarf, but no matter how much he despised such a convention, the fact that the chief was so easily capable of controlling his people in such a profound way was impressive.
Someone cleared his throat and Jaejoong’s eyes snapped back to the chief whose expression was changing into an impatient frown as he shook his hand as a sign for Jaejoong to step closer. Warily, he started walking forwards until he was standing directly in front of the chief, not sure what was expected of him. The chief continued staring at him as he pushed himself up, his face looming only inches away from Jaejoong’s. Simultaneously, the guards on his sides got up on their feet as well, keeping their heads carefully bowed.
Standing up, the previously indolent-looking man suddenly seemed a lot more formidable. In fact, his height was quite impressive, and even the brawny guards had no trouble keeping shorter than him with only slightly nodded heads. He could have easily been half a feet taller than Jaejoong, but instead of feeling intimidated, Jaejoong was used to it by now; living his youth in constant hunger hadn’t been kind on his growth.
The chief raised his hand, and with an assertive gesture, he tugged the cloth covering Jaejoong’s face down. His face contorted in a slight frown as his hand moved upwards under Jaejoong’s jaw. The chief rested his thumb on Jaejoong’s chin, tilting his face upwards. His confused, dark grey eyes searched Jaejoong’s face, the shorter man answering his scrutiny with an equally unyielding stare. Then the chief’s hand travelled down, stopping on top of Jaejoong’s flat chest and his lips curved into a sneer.
“For a moment I thought they tried to swindle me and brought me a woman,” he said, his motionless hand heavy on Jaejoong’s body. “I heard what I heard but never did I think the truth would actually meet the rumour travelling ahead of it…”
The chief’s voice was deep and pleasant, although not as low as Baatar’s. He retracted his hand, letting it drop relaxedly on his side as he steered his eyes away from Jaejoong’s face for the first time since the door had been opened, landing them on Baatar’s stiff form still kneeling on the floor. The women had already moved away from the door and the man looked small and deserted, alone in the doorway.
“Rise, rider,” the chief prompted, and when Baatar stood up, he beckoned for the man to come in.
“Are you the one who took care of this treasure during the travel?” the chief asked him as Baatar had reached Jaejoong, stepping forwards to stand by him.
“Yes, my chief,” Baatar answered, bowing his head a bit further.
The chief looked back at Jaejoong, visibly pleased with what he saw before him.
“Well done, rider. Name a thing and it shall be given to you.”
“Give me nothing, my chief. Serving you is my greatest reward,” Baatar answered, but Jaejoong could see his eyes flickering to the corner where his beloved was standing, preparing something with the other servants. The young woman kept her head pointedly turned away, but Baatar’s gesture had not escaped the chief’s attention, and the man turned around following his gaze, bursting out in a magnificent laugh when he saw what Baatar had been eyeing.
“You want one of my maids?” he asked, incredulous. “And here I was, ready to give you a foal of my horse’s breed or perhaps a sister of mine… Or even one of my concubines if you asked nicely! But you want a maid?”
“No, my chief, I only wish for your contentment,” Baatar answered quickly, his ears turning red from embarrassment and nervousness as the chief continued chuckling, reaching his hand up to stroke his fizzy, dark brown beard, eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Fortunate for you, as her marriage is not in my hands,” the chief chortled. “I reckon my dearest brother would have a bone or two to pick with me if I went around giving away his daughters.”
Baatar’s bow deepened further as he tried to hide his embarrassment. Jaejoong could see the woman standing in the corner, turned away, almost melting into the fabric wall. The chief chuckled joyfully for the last time and then calmed down, his eyes darting back to Jaejoong before he faced Baatar again.
“Horse it is, then. Tell me, rider, is your horse a mare, a stallion or a gelding?”
“A mare, my chief,” Baatar answered, trying to keep his voice steady and firm. He had never stood in front of the chief before, and the man’s unpredictable reputation was making him anxious despite his current genial mood.
“I shall gift you with a stallion then! Breed them well, rider,” the chief announced, delighted. “You may go now! And Nergüi,” he commanded loudly, turning around to the maids once again. Baatar’s beloved stepped forward, eyeing the back of her retreating lover with apprehension. She walked over, stopping next to Jaejoong.
“Take this unpolished jewel to my treasure box. You shall be in charge of him.”