The woman’s hand felt soft and small in Jaejoong’s. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he had last held someone’s hand. When the woman had grasped his hand firmly, he had felt flustered and confused for a second, his feet following the other automatically.
It could have been the fact that the last time he had talked with a woman had been a decade earlier at the slaver’s warehouse, and the last time he had touched one was even longer ago, probably his own mother; but Jaejoong felt oddly calmed by her presence. Only now realising how utterly stressful meeting the chief had been, he let the other lead him as they weaved their way through the large tent and in and out of others, walking on narrow paths between fabric walls. Letting his wary mind lower its guards, Jaejoong clung to the woman’s hand as fear and distress sprung up from beneath the walls he had erected inside himself, making him shiver. The woman noticed it as she peeked over her shoulder, not pausing the steady pace she had set.
“Don't be afraid,” she said in a heavily accented tone. “The worst is over. The Grand Chief has accepted you.”
“I am not exactly sure if that is a fortunate thing,” Jaejoong murmured, tightening his hold of the woman’s hand.
“Oh believe me, it is,” the young woman insisted, coming to a halt in front of a door to another tent. The way they had treaded seemed long, but the tents all were of a similar, grand style, making Jaejoong assume they were all part of the chief’s residence. Even if the walls were made a fabric, a ruler still needed his palace.
Just as the woman was about to lift the fabric door, Jaejoong tugged at her hand, a little too forcefully, making her stumble backwards. The petite woman glared at him as he smiled apologetically, helping her to regain her balance and brush some dust of her robe.
“You are Baatar’s beloved, aren’t you?” Jaejoong whispered, having deduced from the way they had been acting inside the chief’s tent that it wasn’t any kind of widespread knowledge.
The woman scoffed.
“More like his prize wish, I guess,” she answered, taking hold of Jaejoong’s hand again. “That pain in the neck. What on earth made him think it’s okay to look at me inside the Grand Chief’s tent? May the Sun Chariot have mercy on him when I get my hands on him. He will rather wish to have been ran over by it.”
The woman’s apparent annoyance at Baatar’s lack of discretion made Jaejoong chuckle, the couple’s easy relationship making him feel a little at ease despite the foreign environment and the fearful uncertainty of his situation.
The woman looked him in the eye, offering him a friendly smile.
“I guess you two became friends during the travel,” she stated. “It would be just so typical of him, to become attached to a subject of the Grad Chief’s personal command…”
“He took good care of me, if that will make him any more worthy in your eyes,” Jaejoong prompted, making the woman’s smile a little wider still.
“That’s why I still take to him; even though he is such a feckless fool, he is still a good man. Don’t tell him you have heard such a thing leave my lips though! But yes, I am his beloved; my name is Nergüi.”
“I am honoured to meet you,” Jaejoong said, bowing his head in a polite gesture. “My name is Jaejoong.”
The normalness of the situation and its contrast with the strained atmosphere of just minutes earlier was almost absurd, but Jaejoong welcomed it gratefully. It helped him forget his situation for at least a brief moment, and if this meant he could gain even one ally in his new home, it was worth it.
Jaejoong’s uncertain inner musings hardly escaped Nergüi’s observant eyes. She stepped closer to him, resting her other hand on top of their linked hands as well.
“Don’t worry, ghost courtesan,” she said, “I will not lie to you and say this won’t he hard; but I will help you in any way I can. You will adapt.”
Jaejoong tried to stretch the corners of his lips, managing a small, bitter smile.
“I am accustomed to hard,” he said looking down at his hand, enclosed in Nergüi’s smaller, feminine ones. Even with his exquisite clothing, he could see and feel the difference; the chafed skin of his wrist continued to a coarse, scratchy palm, fingernails tattered and torn. Nergüi’s hand on the other hand, was small, with soft, elegant fingers he could see were often washed with milk and expensive nomad oils. It made Jaejoong wonder if his hands would soon be similar; frankly, he preferred his own, worn hands.
The woman looked at him, squeezing his hand before letting it go.
“I can believe that,” she murmured, half to herself. “I don’t know what you’ve been through, but you had better forget it all now. This is your new home.”
With that, she lifted the door of the tent they were standing in front of, revealing a sight previously entirely foreign to Jaejoong. He stepped in, following the young woman.
The room was filled with similar oases built of flocks of pillows, a number women seated in groups, all dressed in gowns as extravagant as the one Jaejoong was wearing, with the difference that their heads were bare, even their hair flowing freely down their backs. There were a few women dressed in the familiar grey and yellow maids’ robes, walking around the room, some carrying large jars or other items; but most of the people inside were idle, covered in silken robes and simple, golden jewellery.
Furthermore, the room was filled with children. There were toddlers hanging about the space, clinging onto the hems of their mothers’ expensive clothes; and there were infants, cradled in their mothers’ arms or the maids’ laps, blissfully sleeping or being fed. The room was filled with laughter and high-pitched hollers of small children, arguments and singing, crying and hushed talking.
Trying to absorb the sight unfolding in front of him, the world of women, a world previously hidden to him, Jaejoong snapped out of his stupor as something bumped against his leg. When Jaejoong glanced down, there was a small boy, no more than eight or nine years of age, staring right back up at him. The boy’s hair was rather long and tightly curled, sticking impishly outwards from his head, his complexion a vivid shade of dark acacia wood. They stared at each other for long moment, Jaejoong transfixed by the child’s curious eyes, when the boy suddenly reached his hand up, tugging Jaejoong’s headpiece over his head, revealing his currently rather unkempt, black hair. There was a call, and the boy instantly turned his head around, bolting away. Jaejoong followed him with his eyes as the child ran right into a woman’s embrace, a woman who looked only slightly older than Jaejoong himself. She looked at him uninterestedly, sorrel eyes skimming over his form before she looked down to coo at her son, beautiful dark hands sliding over the slightly lighter boy’s cheeks.
Jaejoong could hardly form a sentence or even get a single word out of his mouth as he turned his head to stare at Nergüi rather disbelievingly. The woman looked almost embarrassed, bunching her clothes in her fists, scratching her revealed ankle with a small foot slipped into a light sandal.
“I understand that you might feel uncomfortable, this must be very different to what you are used to,” she said, “but the Grand Chief asked me to bring you here… I have no choice.”
Jaejoong looked away again, only to find the same boy who had ran into him staring at him from the corner of the tent, skinny arms around her mother’s silk-covered hips. His eyes were slanted and glowing with an unsatisfied curiosity that reminded Jaejoong of another pair of very familiar dark, almond-shaped eyes. The empty ache in his chest flared up.
“I don’t think I can live here,” he drawled, loosening his headpiece more, combing his fingers slowly through his tangled hair. Nergüi was craning his neck backwards, peering at the ceiling as words bubbled over her lips.
“I mean, it is rather unconventional of him to order you to live here in the first place… Rather unconventional indeed. Usually, no males older than 10 years old, not even the Grand Chief himself are allowed in these quarters. I hope you don’t mind me asking but… you are not… clipped, are you?”
She glanced at him only to find a pair of set, emotionless eyes looking back at her.
“I don’t think I can live here,” he reiterated. She tilted her head a little nervously, glancing around.
“I am afraid you don’t have a say in this matter,” she pointed out hesitantly, offering her hand for the beautiful man standing in front of him. As stunning as he was, Nergüi suddenly felt intimidated by his presence; the previous curious glow had disappeared, replaced with the iciest look she had ever seen in anyone’s eyes. Not even the authoritative, piercing gaze of their chief could challenge the determination she could see in the wide pupils of the man.
Jaejoong glanced at the offered hand, sighing and taking hold of the woman’s nimble fingers. Fighting the insurmountable urge to just back out through the tent’s door and run, he tried to remind himself of all the reasons that were preventing him from just giving in to his flight reflex. Even if he managed to escape the palace grounds, he needed to remember the enormous, restless crowd that he had seen outside the main tent.
Baatar had affirmed that the tensed mood of the public had nothing to do with him specifically, but he couldn’t count on the fact that he’d manage to weave his way through the people; not in his current, high-class attire in the very least.
“Tell me, what can I do,” he begged the woman in an agitated voice, lifting the young woman’s hands up, holding them between his rough palms. Nergüi was staring at him, open-mouthed; he could barely keep up with the quick changes in the man’s mood. “I shall do anything if it means I don’t have to live here. Anything! Tell me, I beg of you; what can I do?”
However, before she could answer, a woman approached them, a long thread of delicate golden coins on her brow and flowing down her long locks. One of her fine eyebrows was quirked up as she walked towards them with a sensual, rocking step, halting her movement right next to them.
“Is this the attraction I have been hearing of for long months? He’s finally here?”
Nergüi stepped back slightly, pulling Jaejoong’s hands snug against her side. The man jerked forwards, half-hidden behind the woman, but still perfectly capable of seeing the other woman over her head. Even if Jaejoong was small for a man of his age, he still towered Baatar’s petite bride.
“Yes, Sarantuya,” she answered, and Jaejoong could hear the avoidance in her voice. The woman smiled shortly, lifting her hand up. Grabbing Jaejoong’s chin, she tilted his head to both sides, reminiscent of the manner the chief had examined him just moments earlier.
“I guess I shall have to admit I was wrong,” she sneered, “he truly is a sight to behold.”
Jaejoong could feel Nergüi’s hands tighten around his, as the woman’s whole body seemed to stiffen. Jaejoong couldn’t tell if it was of anger, fear, or perhaps annoyance; but she seemed like she wanted to get out of the situation as fast as possible.
“What is this I hear about not wanting to live here?” the woman continued, eyes set on Jaejoong. “Already acting against the wishes of the Good Rider?”
Jaejoong glanced at Nergüi, trying to read the woman’s reaction as carefully as he could. He had a feeling this woman waiting impatiently for his answer wasn’t just anybody; the way she carried herself, her statuesque posture graceful but self-assertive was telling enough. Jaejoong wasn’t as stupid as to make enemies during the first day in his new home already, so he flashed the woman a tentative smile.
“Due to my past…which I am more than elated to forget for the sake of your Grand Chief whom I am to serve from this moment on… I find it agonising to imagine myself living in the same quarters with children,” he explained, with a fake smile plastered on his face.
Nergüi turned around to eye him, gradually growing even more curious about the man’s past. The way he had been acting since the moment she first saw him was quite remarkable: she had never seen anyone quite like him. He seemed so tough, like an unpolished diamond, his surface so hard nothing could cut into it—but at the same time, he exposed a very contradictory side of himself at the most unexpected moments. She wondered if Baatar knew anything about it, determined to make her beau sing everything as soon as she had a chance to interrogate him.
“That is only for the Grand Chief to decide,” she sighed, tugging on Jaejoong’s hand. “If you would excuse us, now,” she added to the older woman, bowing curtly before shuffling towards the other end of the tent, dragging Jaejoong after herself again.
“Who was she?” Jaejoong whispered, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the woman who was standing still, looking after them with a blank face.
“She is Sarantuya, the mother of the Grand Chief’s second oldest son,” Nergüi answered him in an equally shushed voice. “Her situation is very precarious at the moment. You should be careful of her.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “In fact, the situation in these days is very inflammable in general. From the bottom of my heart, I advise you to remain suspectful of everyone before you put your trust in them.”
Jaejoong could remember Baatar telling him the same. What was it that was affecting not only the court, but the whole Great Camp, rendering the whole nomad people to such a state?
They stopped in front of a large cupboard. Nergüi opened the finely carved doors, running her fingers over the exquisite wood. The nomad people roamed their endless lands freely, but the one thing they lacked was wood, every small piece valued greatly.
“I have no doubt the Grand Chief will soon drown you in gifts,” she spoke up, “but for the time being I will provide you with all necessities. You will be called to the Grand Chief again tonight. We shall need to make you presentable before that.”
Pulling out refined fabrics, each more flawless than the previous one, she deposited a share into his arms before leading him out of the tent. As they walked over to a smaller tent, one filled with vases and basins full of scented water, Jaejoong realised it. He was meeting the one person who could grant him the right to live elsewhere; the one person who could help him suppress the endless ache of his lost half back into the dark corners of his mind where he had once driven him.
While he was stripped of his robes by a hoard of efficient maids, lavished with soaps and oils and pampered to the very core of his being, he clung onto that idea for his dear life.
As he waited behind the familiar thick curtain door, Jaejoong felt strangely calm. He had a goal now; and no matter how simple a goal it was, it gave him something to work for. Knowing what he wanted to achieve made everything clearer. He could just concentrate on his objective, pushing everything else out of his brain. If there was something he had become good at during the few months after having been robbed from his home, it was intentional forgetting.
Nergüi had dropped him off at the chief’s main tent, nervous as if it was her own wedding night. Jaejoong had smiled at her jerky behaviour, glad that Baatar had managed to find himself someone who had been able to remain so attentive and pure despite the vicious and combative environment she lived in. The young woman had kept asking him if he was fine, telling him that should he need anything, he could always come to her.
For Jaejoong, what was most agonising was that this was a person his wellbeing was now dependant on. He had slept with more men than he’d care to count before, but then, he had had the luxury of acting however he wished to, treating the men as his mortal enemies even when he touched them. This time, he would have to hone his acting skills. He had been told the chief wasn’t an easy man to please, and here he was, trying to accomplish exactly that—the chief’s pleasure.
Sending a quick prayer to the forefathers, he knelt down, settling himself on the floor, imitating the position Baatar had taken when they had first arrived at the Great Camp. He was determined to do this right; and if it meant he needed to lower himself in front of some ruthless man hardly deserving of the grand position he held in the society, Jaejoong would do just that.
He found that the position on the floor had a great effect on him. Facing the floor, he had no way of knowing what was approaching him. He couldn’t see the chief and assess his mood; he couldn’t see if there were other people in the room. As Jaejoong was announced by a couple of maids and the fabric doors were raised, he could only hold his breath and prick up his ears, trying to hear something; anything to help him with his impending task.
The chief was lounging on a large divan, his eyes widening with surprise as Jaejoong’s prostrate figure was revealed.
“Where did my little flame go? Why this sudden obedience,” he chuckled, standing up as he gestured for his guards to back out of the room. “He has been dressed by my maids, there is no possibility of him carrying any weapons.”
The guards bowed down deeply, exiting hurriedly. Jaejoong could see their sandal-clad feet marching past him. There was a brief silence as the guards let the door down, positioning themselves right outside of it.
“Other weapons than yourself, huh?” the chief muttered as he approached Jaejoong’s prone figure. The man hunkered down next to him, resting his palm on top of Jaejoong’s head.
“Rise, my little flame,” he urged.
Jaejoong peeked at the chief, carefully pulling himself up until he was kneeling in front of the crouching chief. Making sure to keep his head lower than the chief’s, he met the man’s gaze. He had a small smile on his lips as he slid his hand down from Jaejoong’s head to his neck, caressing his veiled cheek with a gentle thumb.
“Indeed,” he sighed, his eyes intense yet distant. “Indeed I can see it now.”
Jaejoong studied him warily, afraid any sudden motions could set the man off as if he was in front of a wild animal of an unpredictable nature. Now that they were alone in the room, it seemed like the chief had pulled off and discarded his authoritative air, rendering him into a mere man.
“Come with me,” the chief said, pulling Jaejoong up by his arm, dragging him back to his divan. When they reached it, he slid off Jaejoong’s veil, uncovering his face first and then his whole head. There was a joyful tinkle as his hair fell free. The maids had braided it and adorned it with small golden coins and ornaments.
The chief took in the complicated hairdo before pushing Jaejoong to sit down, seating himself behind the man.
“They will never learn,” the chief mumbled to himself, sounding slightly agitated. To his great surprise, Jaejoong could feel the man’s hands in his hair as the other started disentangling the strands of his braids. “Northerners wear their hair open. Not braided, open.”
It was certainly not what he had been expecting. Jaejoong sat there obediently, not flinching an inch as the chief worked on his hair rather heavy-handedly, tugging and pulling in his haste. He closed his eyes, only to open them when his face was suddenly pulled sideways to look at the chief.
“Has the cat got your tongue, or do you not understand me? Is my accent worse than those repulsive, fawning idiots let on?” the chief asked him, his expression thoroughly amused. In his wonderment, Jaejoong had failed to notice the chief had started talking to him again.
“I am sorry…” he blinked at the man, still perplexed.
The chief’s grin widened.
“No ‘my chief’?” he enquired pointedly, placing his palm back against Jaejoong’s cheek after sweeping all his hair over one shoulder. The arduous work of the maids had been wasted as his long locks were now opened and completely freed of their delicate decorations.
Jaejoong stared at him, utterly confused. He had come inside, bracing himself for an immense amount of grovelling and complimenting. And now, the chief was there smiling, delighted with his lack of proper court etiquette? Be that as it may, Jaejoong’s only objective was to please the man; and if it was best done through rough conduct, so be it. He had long learnt to change his plans on the fly.
“I only stooped so low as to prostrate myself in order to gain something,” he spat out harshly. “I don’t want to live in the women’s quarters. Let me out.”
“That’s more like it,” the chief cooed amusedly, completely disregarding for Jaejoong’s request. “There’s that fire I saw before… Tell me, my little flame,” he then changed the subject, “do you know why you were brought here?”
Jaejoong shook his head, combing his poorly unbraided hair with his fingers. “For Your Highness’s personal pleasure, I would reckon,” he couldn’t help but to add dryly.
The chief chuckled, and before he knew it, Jaejoong had been pulled on his lap. He stiffened, inhaling deeply as he willed himself to remember this man had his life and wellbeing on the palm of his hand.
Strong fingers gathered Jaejoong’s hair into one thick tuft as the chief buried his face into the newly washed, fragrant hair. Slowly, he lowered the young man on his lap against the mountain of pillows on his divan, fingers still carded through the raven locks.
“I shall not tell you, then,” the chief spoke after a small moment of silence. Jaejoong swallowed, trying to remind himself why this was easy, how he had done this countless times before, how he had always had the worthiest reason in the world to do it since he was doing it in order to be able to take care of the most valuable soul on earth, and how he was now doing it only for himself, how he was alone now, and how it was just so hard.
“We shall forget all about it…together,” the chief added just before he leant down to kiss Jaejoong.
Months before, Jaejoong had promised himself he would never again cry over what had already been lost; and that night, he kept his promise. After the chief had finally fallen asleep, he spent the rest of the seemingly endless night staring up at the heavy fabric roof, mind chiefly shut down, wondering if Nergüi would have something for the dark undersides of his eyes.