The day Jaejoong wore the nomad men’s dress for the first time in his life was quite different from what he had imagined.
When Nergüi stepped inside the concubines’ tent, a pile of white and sand-coloured cloth in her arms, she looked unsettled and eager at the same time. There was a strange moment when everyone seemed to be looking at her, until one by one the women’s glances shifted onto Jaejoong. Under their scrutiny Jaejoong felt out of place in the most fundamental manner he could: he felt like a man disturbing the peace of women’s quarters. The feeling hit him harder than he would have ever thought; the simple, spacious room had been his home for the last three years after all. Nergüi glanced around, sensing the shift in the air, but before she could utter a word Jaejoong was already walking over to where the baths were.
Nergüi followed Jaejoong in, making sure the curtain doors were closed tightly before she turned around to inspect the young man. He was standing in front of a large full body mirror, staring at his own reflection, as if he was trying hard to see something in there, to see a reason.
“Are you ready?” she asked him, swallowing. It was a rather strange question to ask; after all, Jaejoong was about to get back a part of his identity that he had been denied for a long time. It was hard to imagine he’d be anything else but thrilled; but Nergüi could see the strange uncertainty in the man’s eyes as they searched the mirror.
Jaejoong raised his hands, pressing them against the glass surface, leaning even closer to peer into his own eyes before he pushed himself back and faced Nergüi. As if the woman hadn’t been able to see his expression though the reflection, he was wearing a faint smile on his lips when he turned around.
“Yeah,” he breathed out, not sounding very convincing. “Yeah. I am ready.”
The atmosphere hardly improved as Nergüi started helping him out of his clothes. In fact, it felt odd, even uncomfortable. Nergüi couldn’t remember how many times he had helped Jaejoong dress and bath since they day he had appeared at the Great Camp, but somehow, it felt different now.
Fastening the white robe of a state official, a minor and insignificant official but an official nonetheless, on Jaejoong was very different from covering him in the most exquisite of silks. Nergüi almost felt like he was doing something immoral; like she should have been calling for a pageboy and exiting the room already. She could see Jaejoong was uneasy too, and she got over with it as quickly as she could, averting her gaze from the naked body she had seen countless times before.
When they were ready, Jaejoong stepped back in front of the mirror, staring at his new figure. The robe stretched across his chest, fitting him tighter than the flowing gowns he was used to wearing, emphasising his wide shoulders and narrow hips, the maleness of his form. It was different from the short tunics he had worn as a little northerner boy, but it was also different from the female dress he had worn ever since he lived in the steppe. It was unlike anything he had worn before, and somehow, he didn’t like it. It made him feel like he was now part of a crowd he didn’t exactly want to be part of. A crowd that had only brought him misfortune in the past.
Jaejoong took in the long black locks of hair curling along his shoulders, and gathering all of it, he swept it over his shoulder and tucked it in the back of his neckline. Making sure all loose tresses were secured behind his ears, he stared at his image again, trying to imagine how he would look with his hair sheared short like the nomad men kept it.
The thought made him quickly shake his head, freeing his hair from underneath his clothes.
“Braid my hair,” Jaejoong asked, his voice coming out almost like a plea.
“Huh?” Nergüi was taken by surprise and she looked up from the clothes she was folding, from the pale yellow of Jaejoong’s silken gown.
“Braid my hair…please,” Jaejoong reiterated, casting an imploring look at Nergüi through the mirror.
“But—” Nergüi started but Jaejoong hushed her with a beckon.
Only when Jaejoong saw his reflection looking back at him with delicate waterfall braids lining both sides of his head, he felt a little at ease. It didn’t make any sense; the braids were in no way familiar to him, having always had worn his hair open in northern style. However, right now it felt like it was the only thing preserving an important part of him.
When they walked out through the concubine’s room, the women stared at him even more intensely. Even if Jaejoong had spent the last three years wishing he could get out of this particular room, he now felt remorseful. With a simple change of dress, he had been cast out of the community he should have never been part of in the first place, but that had accepted him all the same.
He knew he would never be able to live in the women’s quarters in the dress of an official, but the thought made him as regretful as it made him spirited. He truly wanted out, but he was also losing something.
Jaejoong walked forwards, keeping his eyes on the ground, refusing to meet any of the inspecting, harmless eyes of the women. He only looked up when a familiar hand lay on his shoulder. Sarantuya’s eyes were bright and reflective, like liquid as she smiled at Jaejoong encouragingly. She leant forwards, whispering into his ear.
“Remember. The High King has his son,” she muttered. “Her son. He has what the chief wants back.”
She drew back, her hand travelling up, caressing Jaejoong’s jaw.
“And you,” she continued, now aloud, ”you have the words. You have the ink and the paper and the brush.”
Jaejoong looked at her, realising the truth in her words. It was a strange kind of power, but it was power over the chief and he had it.
He barely had time to hug his dear friend before Nergüi was nervously pulling him away and towards the door, telling him to hurry as the scribe was already waiting for him.
While still in the women’s quarters, Jaejoong had never thought he’d feel even more uncomfortable after he had come out—but he did. The soldiers accompanying him to the scribe’s office gaped at him rather openly, amazed by the face they were seeing for the first time despite having escorted the same man countless times before. This was the world he was supposed to now be part of; but the world was hardly accepting him any better than the women had been.
It wasn’t only once that Jaejoong raised his hands to tug his scarf deeper over his forehead, only to encounter bare skin and braided hair with his searching fingertips.
Many a time he had been grateful for the restricting bounds his veil provided, but only now did he understand what a protective second skin to him it actually was. Everyone in the palace knew who he was, everyone knew why he was there and whom he had been brought to replace; and everyone was curious of him. Now that he was there, laid open to burn under their interfering gazes, he truly felt naked.
He still kept his eyes securely on the ground, following in the steps of a guard as he was led to a tent he had never been in before. The soldier walking in front of him kept glancing at him sideways, and the soldier next to him didn’t even bother to mask his open staring, almost tripping over a tent rope.
When they arrived, the men still kept their mouths shut and their eyes open as they drew back the curtain door, not even announcing him. Jaejoong stood there, slightly at loss what to do. One of the guards cleared his throat, and when Jaejoong slowly looked at him, he nodded towards the door they were holding open, urging him to enter. The men clearly weren’t exactly sure how to act around him; guards were strictly forbidden to interact with concubines, but what was now standing in front of them was a young man dressed in lower rank official’s clothing. A young man with delicately braided long hair whom they had countless times brought to the chief for a night, dressed as a woman.
Jaejoong took the hint, bending down slightly to shuffle inside the tent. The soldiers let the door down immediately, and Jaejoong could hear their equipment clanking as they took positions outside. Apparently he was still to be watched over.
“Ah, I was waiting for you! Come here, young man,” a demanding voice startled Jaejoong out of his thoughts. The scribe was sitting on a pillow next to a low table filled with letters and books.
Jaejoong stepped closer warily, seating himself opposite of the elderly man. The man had clearly seen many years already, but his eyes still held a look of sharp intelligence.
The man took in Jaejoong’s tense shoulders and chuckled.
“Don’t worry there, I do not care who you are or why you exist within these palace grounds in the first place. Believe me when I say I am strictly interested in what is inside of you,” the man threw a poignant look towards his head.
Jaejoong contemplated his words for a moment, observing the man who was offering him a blank face, displaying his intentions openly, before he nodded.
“So, now that we are past the part of you adjusting to your sudden and extreme change of status within the Great Chief’s inner circle,” the man chuckled at himself, “and mind you, I will not be requiring any ridiculous honorifics when it’s just you and me inside this tent…within that barbarian idiot’s inner circle…we can get straight to the point. Why do you know how to read?”
Jaejoong looked at the man, and decided he liked him. He also decided to award straightforwardness with straightforwardness.
“My fathers taught me when I was a child,” he answered truthfully.
“Ah, northerners and their kinship,” the man scoffed, but looked interested all the same. “You will have to tell me more about the way your family was organised internally, but save that for later. More important is, can you write as well?”
“I… I should be able to,” Jaejoong answered. “It has been a few years since I last wrote.”
“Ah, it is a skill that wears out like a horse taken poorly care of,” the man pondered. “But you are the best chance I have; and you have already proved the extent of your knowledge.”
The man laid out a few letters in front of them, opening them for Jaejoong to observe. Without saying a word, he watched the young man sweep his eyes over the papers, easily deciphering the meaning of the elegant strokes. It was obvious the scribes of the High King in the southern capital were extremely skilled. Not only was their penmanship excellent, but their usage of words was beautiful. The letters conversed on diplomatic and economic issues, on trade and borderland conflicts. They were full of carefully constructed demands and suggestions, meticulously disguised as subservient flattering.
Jaejoong could see the letter he had read aloud in the chief’s room amongst them. It was now fully displayed, and underneath the part concerning new restrictions on slave trade there was another, much more intriguing paragraph. Jaejoong shifted the paper closer to himself, curious about the cryptic words.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” the old man closely studying him chuckled. Jaejoong nodded quickly, his mind working fast over the words. It was a very poetic, but obvious threat; if laid out even slightly differently, it would have been a direct promise to kill the chief’s son if the caravans wouldn’t stop raiding the more distant villages under the southern capital’s protection.
“I want you to write a response to this letter,” the man said, rolling the paper up before taking hold of Jaejoong’s arm and tucking the letter inside his sleeve. “You will show me what you have written tomorrow; if it’s good enough, we shall meet the chief and you will read it aloud to him.”
Jaejoong looked at the man’s eyes, confused. Why had he rolled up the paper, if Jaejoong was to write an answer?
“I will send you away already. I didn’t think you’d be very happy to stay here for long after you have finally been released from that brothel…” the man smiled. “I was against you living there from the very start, not that the idiot we have for a chief would have listened to me. Quite unconventional, don’t you think? A man living amongst the whores!”
Jaejoong felt uneasy with such language used against the people he had lived amongst for the last three years of his life. He might have not befriended most of them, but he had come to know them well all the same, observing their bustle day after day. He knew they might have come in with naïve expectations of luxurious life; but after a few months as a concubine, those kinds of thoughts would have vanished from anyone’s mind. None of those women where there willingly.
“It was my home,” he answered simply, frowning a little. “I am not going to lie; at first it was excruciating for me to live there, but for a reason very different from what you think.”
The man smiled softly, patting Jaejoong’s arm. “I do not wish to argue with you. I only want to concentrate on writing down the stories of our people, our customs; so that none of those southern snobs will be able to call us historyless barbarians anymore. I have no interest in using up all my time maintaining this petty state correspondence, a poorly disguised fight between two power-hungry idiots.”
“Where am I going now?” Jaejoong asked, helpless and slightly scared. He knew he wouldn’t be thrust back into the women’s quarters, but he couldn’t think of any other options that were much better. Surely they weren’t going to just lead him out of the door and leave him to his own devices? The idea of standing there alone, amongst the enormous crowd of strange people who all could see him in his current naked state, was quite frightening.
The man smiled again, even more gently this time.
“I believe that little maid friend of yours has arranged something,” he whispered conspiratorially.
“Nergüi?” Jaejoong asked, dumbfounded. The woman had mentioned nothing to him.
“You are now a state official,” the man explained him. “You cannot live in the palace anymore. Only whores and servants live here.”
With that, the old man rose, and after calling for the soldiers to open the door, Jaejoong was ushered away. He was too confused, too occupied with his form being visible to others and the letter weighing down in his sleeve that he didn’t even notice Baatar before the man was in his arms.
“J-Jaejoong,” his dear friend could barely utter the name from his erratic breathing.
“Brother,” Jaejoong puffed, the nomad man’s arms tightening around him so tightly that Jaejoong could do nothing but hold onto the man’s gown, nose pressed against a sturdy shoulder. Baatar was squeezing him so tightly he could barely breathe let alone attempt to speak.
“There, there, let him go already, he’s not going anywhere anymore,” Jaejoong heard a familiar female voice teasing as a small hand started prying Baatar’s hands off him. The man backed down, sniffling as he wiped his sleeve over his glistening eyes. Nergüi was standing next to Jaejoong, and when he glanced at the woman, he could see a tender expression mixed with amusement and pride on her face.
“Jaejoong, I have missed you so much I cannot even put it into words,” Baatar confessed as he fought his tears. “When Nergüi told me that you were going to be given a position as a scribe… You can only imagine how delighted I was!”
Jaejoong felt the warmth of Baatar’s sincerity ease his jumpy mind. He brought a hand forward, resting it on the other man’s shoulder.
“Brother, I have missed you as well. I have never forgotten all that you did to me… Even sending me this second angel to guide me where you couldn’t reach,” he said, sending a smile towards Nergüi. The woman blushed a little, rubbing her face to hide the obvious rush of colour decorating her cheeks.
“Believe me, I took care of you because I like you,” she said. “I wouldn’t go out of my way just because he asks me… Fool.”
Baatar looked at his beloved, his eyes so thankful and full of love it made Jaejoong’s heart hurt. For a moment he expected that Nergüi would show her tongue at the man, but instead she turned to Jaejoong and embraced him.
“Go with Baatar… We will see everyday when you come to work,” she whispered to him, her thin arms draped around the man’s narrow waist.
Jaejoong squeezed the woman tight against his chest before letting her go.
“Sister…” he hesitated, wanting to ask her for a last favour. She smiled at him encouragingly. “Would you… would you give me a big scarf to cover myself with,” he managed to ask and while Baatar looked slightly puzzled, Nergüi only smiled and smoothed her palms over his tight-fitting state official gown.
“I will find you one that matches these colours perfectly,” she whispered back, disappearing inside for a brief moment. She re-emerged with a wide, soft orange cloth that she handed over to Jaejoong who quickly draped it over his head. Baatar followed his actions with confusion on his face but he didn’t ask anything, which Jaejoong felt grateful for. He could see the guards standing next to the nearest tent gaping at him, averting their eyes quickly as soon as he met them.
“Thank you, sister,” he said, and took hold of Nergüi’s hand. The petite woman smiled at him knowingly, gripping his hand tightly until it slipped out of her hold as Baatar led Jaejoong out of the palace grounds, exactly as he had led him into them three years earlier.
Jaejoong life soon settled into a new kind of routine. It was a good life; better and more comfortable than anything he had experienced before. He lived with Baatar in his tent, a rather small one with an open fireplace in front of it where meals could be taken care of. Every morning, Baatar walked him to the chief’s residence, refusing to let him go alone, and after having heard the whole story behind the unsteady situation in the Great Camp Jaejoong let him without any protests. There were constantly smaller conflicts and fights; even if no greater battle had taken place during the three years Jaejoong had lived in the palace, the flame was still smouldering underneath the still surface. It would only take the smallest spark for it to burst into great flames. As long as the chief’s son was held captive, there was no assurance an overthrowing wouldn’t happen. Jaejoong accepted Baatar’s presence gladly, walking close by the other man, covered in his orange scarf that was clearly not part of his official uniform.
The first letter Jaejoong had written had been a huge success. Not only the scribe, but also every other official in the room had gaped at him with great disbelief as he read his answer to the High King aloud to the chief. The chief hadn’t spared him a glance, lying down, staring at the ceiling of his tent as he listened Jaejoong’s husky voice recite his rather quick-witted letter. He had dismissed the pair of intellectuals with a wave of his hand, never looking at Jaejoong again.
From then on Jaejoong spent long hours in the scribe’s office, reading letters and answering them according to the chief’s instructions as the old man sat opposite of him, humming softly as he penned down the collective oral knowledge of the nomad clans. The man seemed happy now that he didn’t have to bother with the boring diplomatic relations but was able to concentrate on more cultural issues. He let Jaejoong work quite freely, marvelling at his poetic ability, praising his penmanship endlessly. He would sometimes have Jaejoong explain him some of the forms of poetry the southerner scribes used, awed by Jaejoong’s quick wits and vast knowledge. The young man was sometimes surprised even himself, at how quickly he would get the hang of even the most modern and strange forms. Even the High King seemed to notice that the nomad chief, a brute barbarian in his eyes, had gained a new scribe. The arriving letters would often include indirect challenges at his expertise, making him push himself and learn to imitate new styles of writing in mere days, even bettering them by inventing new metres.
Jaejoong only met the chief occasionally now, as the older scribe still served in official state meetings. They only needed a scribe when foreign matters were discussed; most of the nomads were illiterate themselves and only used oral agreements. Jaejoong was called in only when he would have to read out a more complicated letter, or present the answer he had written concerning a more serious issue.
When Jaejoong was called in, the chief rarely paid any attention to him. As soon as Jaejoong was out of his women’s quarters, out of the reach of his control, dressed as a man and barefaced in front of everyone, he had lost all his interest. Jaejoong couldn’t thank his forefathers enough; for a long period of time he was nervous the chief would take back the freedom he had given him, but as half a year passed and nothing changed, he started to relax. His only sorrow was the fact that now that he was considered a man in the court, he could no longer enter the women’s quarters. Jaejoong hadn’t seen Sarantuya ever since the day he had left to live with Baatar.
Baatar himself had been living quietly at the Great Camp, preparing himself for the time he could actually ask for Nergüi’s hand at marriage. Ever since the chief had given him a horse of his noble breed, he had been gaining wealth with trading the foals. It suited Jaejoong well; he wasn’t quite sure how he’d fared if Baatar had left for long caravan trips. He had taken care of himself and another person even as a small child, but never had he had to do it in such a large city immersed in constant political roiling.
Most nights they spent quietly inside Baatar’s tent, the other working on odd chores while Jaejoong read. The scribe was happy to loan him any of the few books kept at the chief’s residence, and Jaejoong took great joy in reading them. Sometimes he would also prepare his literary work of the next day or just write down arbitrary things, anything that happened to cross his mind. He had brought over some ink stones, paper and brushes from the scribe’s office, and often took over Baatar’s low table with his writing equipment. On some days, Baatar would merely lie beside him, watch his brush fly over the smooth paper as he wrote. Baatar himself was illiterate, but the more he saw Jaejoong write, the more curious he grew about it.
One day, when Jaejoong was concentrating exceptionally hard, small noises of distress escaping his lips as he tried to come up with even more elegant ways to answer the shrouded jabs of the southern scribes, Baatar could no longer conceal his curiosity.
“Jaejoong,” he started, peering down at the half-written page held down by two small paperweights.
“Yes, brother?” Jaejoong answered him, not exactly paying attention to the man’s words.
“What is this letter about?”
“Hmm,” Jaejoong hummed, not having heard a word as his mind worked on the next sentence. Baatar eyed Jaejoong’s concentrated profile, tongue peeking out of his mouth as he pondered.
He shifted closer, and when he was certain Jaejoong had no intention to acknowledge his presence any time soon, he suddenly slammed his palm against the table, making the other man jump back with a yelp.
“Brother!” Jaejoong exclaimed, extremely surprised. “You almost spilled my ink!”
Baatar grinned at him goofily before pursing his lips.
“That is because you were paying no attention to me,” he complained, gesturing towards the letter. “I asked you what those southern fools are saying this time.”
“Oh,” Jaejoong cleared his throat, “they’re just trying to find out the new scribe’s identity again. The High King is saying I cannot be a nomad because—,” Jaejoong stopped abruptly to glance at Baatar. “Well, he thinks no horse-loving barbarian could be as… umm.”
“As highly skilled and intellectual as you are,” Baatar finished for him, teasing the man who was stubbornly staring down at his letter, cheeks tinted with a rosy hue. He wasn’t exactly used to receiving such compliments, since most of his life people had always concentrated on his looks.
Jaejoong coughed, making Baatar chuckle.
“Well, they sure are right, I am a fool who couldn’t even write down my own name… Would you teach me?” he asked suddenly, excited with the idea of learning how his own name would look like, painted on white paper with black ink.
“To write your name?” Jaejoong inquired, surprised. “I am sorry, brother, but… All this correspondence is done in our language. I don’t know how to write your language, your names…”
“Oh,” Baatar said. The disappointment was clear on his face, and Jaejoong found himself fervently searching for a solution.
“What do you say if,” he started carefully, “well, maybe I could give you a northern name and show you how to write it?”
Baatar’s face lighted up immediately at the idea.
“Please!” he exclaimed quickly, settling himself down next to Jaejoong. The man was scratching his cheek with the other end of his brush, a contemplative look in is eyes. Baatar tried to wait patiently, having often seen how difficult writing could be, how Jaejoong sometimes spent hours pondering over just a few words and how to write them.
Just when he was about to open his mouth, Jaejoong dipped his brush in the ink and wrote something on a scrap piece of paper lying on the table between them. Baatar watched with rapt attention how the elegant curves slowly formed on the paper. After Jaejoong finished the second character off with a horizontal stroke, Baatar stared at the beautiful character for a short while more before facing Jaejoong with a great question on his face.
“Yoo…chun,” Jaejoong read aloud for him, pointing at the respective characters. “The first one means ‘to exist’ or ‘to have’, and the second one means ‘heaven’.”
Baatar gave him an exaggeratedly amused stare, even though Jaejoong could see he was thrilled somewhere inside.
“Why thank you, Jaejoong,” he stated, “but isn’t that kind of overdoing it?”
Jaejoong slapped his shoulder hard, making Baatar wince and grab the injured body part with mock hurt. After they’d settled down, Jaejoong turned his attention back to the two characters he had just written.
“When I was taken away from… When your caravan was holding me captivate,” he confessed in a small voice, “you were the only thing holding me together. That night when you let me cry against your shoulder… I thought you must had been sent to me by the heavens.”
Baatar shifted closer, allowing Jaejoong to wrap an arm around his shoulder as he pulled the other man closer to him by his waist. He buried his nose onto Jaejoong’s shoulder, closing his eyes.
“I have never, ever, ever in my life,” he admitted, “regretted anything so much as having brought you here and handed you over to the chief.”
Jaejoong could hear it in his sensitive friend’s voice, the tears threatening to spill over once again. He petted Baatar’s arm gently, resting his cheek against the top of the other’s head.
“You have no reason to feel guilty, brother,” he assured him. “I feel nothing but gratefulness towards you. Not to mention the other dear person you gave me. I would have never met Nergüi if you hadn’t led me here.”
Baatar didn’t answer him, merely squeezing his side tightly. They sat in silence for a short while, enjoying each other’s closeness.
“Now that I am at it,” Jaejoong spoke up suddenly, “shall I give a name to Nergüi as well?”
Baatar turned his head slightly to look up at Jaejoong.
“Jimin,” the young man said, tasting the syllables in his mouth. Baatar repeated after him, quite liking the sound of the foreign name of his beloved.
“What does it mean?” he asked Jaejoong.
“The will of heaven,” Jaejoong said and reached over his other hand, pinching Baatar’s nose. “If you were sent here for me… She was sent here to put you in order, the emotional mess you are.”
“Now wouldn’t that be perfect,” Baatar said with a dreamy voice. “Sent here…for me. For me!”
Seeing that he had managed to put his friend in a better mood, Jaejoong snickered, embracing Baatar even tighter.
The day Jaejoong was sent away came forth as abruptly as the day he had been captured.
It was a perfectly normal day; Baatar was walking Jaejoong to the chief’s residence as they discussed the lack of slaves at the Great Camp. As nomads rarely cultivated anything themselves, there was hardly any need for widespread, cheap workforce. The only slaves Jaejoong knew were the concubines; and even their position was quite different from the slaves’ in the southern lands. Even while living amongst them, Jaejoong had been the only one with a slave mark branded on his skin; but to his great surprise, no one had actually cared about it. It was so unlike the southern lands, where he had always been afraid that the moment he’d step into a town, people would find out about his mark.
Jaejoong was just about to ask Baatar if he had ever travelled with a slave-trading caravan when they reached the large main tent. Nergüi was standing outside, tapping her foot nervously against the ground. The moment she noticed Baatar and Jaejoong she was flying towards them, eyes wide with urgency.
“Jaejoong!” she cried out. “He is going to send you away!”
Jaejoong was taken by complete surprise as the young woman ran straight into him, colliding with his front. He quickly wrapped his arms around her as she looked up at his face.
“What are you talking about, sister?” he asked quickly.
Nergüi’s face was filled with silent dread as she started explaining.
“You told me they had been very curious about who the new scribe is,” she sniffled. “The Grand Chief has been highly amused by their interest, so he had ordered the scribe to tell your story in a letter.”
“So?” Jaejoong urged her to continue. “What happened? What’s wrong, sister!” He took hold of her shoulders and started shaking her until Baatar stepped in, grasping his arm.
“Stop it, Jaejoong,” he said gravely. “Let her talk.”
Jaejoong eyed the guards standing on both sides of the big entrance of the tent, watching them intently but showing no sign they were going to step closer. Still, he had a strange feeling that if he tried to escape, he wouldn’t make it far.
“The High King… He— He agreed to give the Grand Chief his son back if he only send the ghost courtesan to the southern capital.”
Jaejoong’s mouth dropped open as he desperately searched for the right words to say. Baatar gripped his shoulder, fingers tightening against his bones until Jaejoong was sure he was going to bruise.
“He is going to send you away today,” Nergüi whispered. “The letter arrived today and he doesn’t want to wait a moment longer… Since there happens to be a caravan leaving today he already decided you would travel with them.”
Jaejoong was so shocked he could barely move. The last year and a half had lulled him into a false sense of security. He had forgotten he was still at the mercy of someone else, someone much more powerful than him. He had been reasonably happy living with Baatar, spending his days in the company of dusty paper and poetry. And now, now he was going to be used as merchandise again? A beautiful trinket only worth of what someone was ready to trade it for?
Nergüi had clasped his hand, rubbing the back of it so furiously that Jaejoong would have thought his skin was about to wear off if he wasn’t so occupied with the sudden change of his future.
“We have to go,” she hissed desperately. “I have been instructed to dress you in the attire of a visiting princess. I am so sorry…”
Jaejoong stared at her, nodding blindly before following her lead wordlessly.
In a moment, he was back in the room he thought he’d never see again from inside. There was a busy bustle inside, more maids running around than Jaejoong had ever seen inside the room at the same time. Most of the concubines were sitting next to the fabric walls, hugging their children close to themselves as they whispered to each other, glancing at Jaejoong every now and then. Jaejoong could see Sarantuya in the farthest corner, eyes liquid as she gave him a small smile in greeting.
“Get naked,” Nergüi ordered hurriedly, already ridding Jaejoong of his light orange scarf while ushering him towards the tent where the baths were situated at the same time.
There was a moment when Jaejoong almost stopped dead on his tracks, ready to declare out loud that he wasn’t going to do this, that they could take him to the chief and let him take on whatever was to come but he wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore.
Then, a thought entered his mind. The capital… It was far away, he had travelled that distance once before. It was the place he had first met Yunho, where he had come from, and where he had left everything behind.
A small spark suddenly forced itself into Jaejoong’s feverishly working mind. Maybe, just maybe, if he went back, he would also be able to find anew what he had lost five years earlier?
The chance was so tiny Jaejoong knew it was hopeless to even think about it; most probably he would once again be kept closely confined, unable to search for anything or anyone. But the chance was still bigger than if he spent the rest of his days at the Great Camp. Right now, there were thousands of miles between them; if Jaejoong was in the capital, there might only be a few.
So, he followed a frantic Nergüi to the baths, letting himself be stripped and pampered in striking resemblance to the day he had first arrived. Just like that day, he didn’t move a finger himself, letting the women drag him around, lift his limbs and scrub him as they wished. As soon as he had been thoroughly bathed, Nergüi entered the room carrying a pile of yellow and light pink silk. While she started laying them out on a bench, unfolding layer after layer of clothes, a couple of young maids came in, carrying large jewellery boxes. They placed them down next to the clothes, and as they opened them, Jaejoong could see they were filled with golden ornaments and fine stones.
Jaejoong eyed the sight with a mix of amazement and confusion. He had never seen anything quite like it, not even though he had always been dressed finely during the three years he had spent as the chief’s concubine. The clothes were absolutely beautiful, and the amount of gold was quite possibly five times more than he had ever seen before.
On the other hand, he felt a strong desire to wear all of it, not even able imagine what a sight it would be. The clothes would be comfortable, loose unlike the tight-fitting official uniform. He would look like he had stood underneath as the sun had suddenly decided to rain down, his whole body covered in golden gleam.
However, on the other hand, he felt that the moment he gave in to his want he would be stripped of everything he had built up to be during the last year and a half. He had prided himself in how excellent his literary skill had gotten, drowning himself in the endless praise the elder scribe would shower him with, and in the wonder he could see in Baatar’s eyes every time the man watched him draw elegant characters on paper.
Nergüi noticed the conflicting emotions playing out on Jaejoong’s face, unsure of what to make out of them.
“Jaejoong…” she prompted, laying her hand on the man’s naked shoulder.
“Women’s clothes,” Jaejoong said. “They will make me into a woman again. They will take away all that I have become… Nergüi, I didn’t think I could be anything, not again, not here, so far away. Still, I managed. And now this is what they give me? Women’s clothes.”
Nergüi closed her eyes for moment, inhaling slowly, searching for the right words to console the young man with.
”Would you take me for any lesser of a human if I dressed myself in a riding gown and revealed my hair? Do you think Baatar would laugh at me? Would I myself ridicule my own value?” she asked carefully, her grip tightening on his shoulder.
“No…” Jaejoong lowered his eyes, ashamed to look Nergüi in the eye. He felt the shame burn his cheeks as he understood just what he had done by complaining: he had blatantly looked down on Nergüi and all her sisters, placing himself above her just because of something he happened to have between his legs. He, if anyone, should know better than to look down upon people.
“Then you shall not either, whether you are wearing a man’s attire or a woman’s. You shall not let anyone look down on you just because you are riding southwest with your face hidden and more gold on your wrists and neck than you would ever know how to spend in a whole lifetime. I shall not let anyone look down on you. The least of all, yourself.”
She knelt down, placing both of her palms on Jaejoong’s cheeks as she looked him straight in the eyes.
“Jaejoong, you are not losing the smallest piece of yourself. You will carry it all with you, every single moment you spent with me, every single verse you wrote, every single night you slept in Baatar’s tent, every single silly tale you shared with Sarantuya… You will take it all with you to carry to the southern capital.”
Jaejoong looked at her, seeing the sincerity in her eyes as she tried to make him understand. Before he knew, tears were streaming down his face, Nergüi’s composure crumbling down right along with them.
“I am so sorry,” she wept, almost crushing Jaejoong as she hugged him impossibly tight. “I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish you could just stay here and live with us after that idiot of a man finally asks for my hand…”
Jaejoong wound his arms around the woman whose body suddenly seemed even smaller than normally.
“It’s not your fault,” he muttered, “don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.”
So, he was dressed with the help of half a dozen maids, two of which would follow him on his long travel to the southern capital. When he was lead out of the into the women’s quarters, Sarantuya came to him, slipping her hand into his. She didn’t say anything, just walked beside him. When they arrived at the big door leading out, she faced Jaejoong, clasping the hand she was holding between both of her palms. She smiled, and without uttering a word, she leant upwards, placing a kiss on Jaejoong’s cheek. With an apologetic look in her eyes, she stood there watching as Jaejoong disappeared behind the door.
Baatar was waiting for them outside. As soon as he saw Jaejoong’s form adorned with jewels, he felt a sting behind his eyes. Jaejoong refused to meet his eyes, staring at the ground. There were multiple guards behind Baatar, all staring at Jaejoong as his veil was still resting in Nergüi’s arms.
Baatar stepped closer, letting his right hand rest on Jaejoong’s shoulder and his left on Nergüi’s.
“I think you do not realise what high regard all these people with power actually hold you in. The Good Rider is exchanging you for his son. His son, his heir, you understand? Do you think the High King would ever agree for a trade of prisoners: silly Baatar for the heir of the Grand Chief of all nomads? That’s a valuable diplomatic weapon he holds inside the confines of his palace. Sent soldiers all the way here to capture the Grand Chief’s son.”
Baatar squeezed Jaejoong’s shoulder.
“Yet he doesn’t want that diplomatic asset. He wants you.”
“Right,” Jaejoong croaked, clearing his throat. He looked up at Nergüi, meeting the young woman’s eyes that were still rimmed with tears.
“I will miss you, Jaejoong,” she whispered, reaching her hand upwards to run her fingertips along the delicate braids weaved into Jaejoong’s hair on the sides of his face. “I sincerely wish you the best in the southern capital. May the southern king be as merciful to you as the Good Rider has been.”
Baatar cleared his throat, tightening the grip he had of Jaejoong’s shoulder, twisting the fabric of his beautiful silken gown into his fist.
“I’d ask you to write me, but you know I cannot read… And I don't know whom you could meet to entrust your letters to be carried this far. Whenever I come the southern capital I will bang on the palace gates to make them let me see you, I swear—”
“Save your love confessions for someone else,” Jaejoong disrupted him, resting his hand on top of Baatar’s tensed one. “I will miss you both tremendously.”
Baatar was quickly in tears as well, the groom and bride-to-be both sniffling as they exchanged their last hugs with the beautiful man. Jaejoong looked almost ethereal as Nergüi drew his veil over his hair, lowering it to cover his face. He had calmed down, retreating back to the strange cold demeanour, reminding Baatar acutely of the man he had been tied to day and night through on the steppe five years earlier. As Jaejoong turned around, walking away with a dozen soldiers in front of him, two maids behind him carrying a large chest between them, Baatar could do nothing but hold onto his beloved and cry.
The caravan left in a hurry, a large carriage in the middle of it. Jaejoong didn’t see the chief again. The man who had remoulded his future twice kept to himself, staying inside his tent as he dispatched the very man he had first brought in for his own pleasure.