The temples of Sou weren’t very elaborate. This one only consisted of one room that was empty save for a short flight of stairs and a plateau holding some kind of basin on the other side of the hall. Kanuen had fallen down on the last step, his arms resting on the plateau with this face buried in his sleeves. His shoulders shook, making his black hair slide to the side and reveal the slender neck.
Hou Dong’s brows furrowed. He had never seen him this fragile.
Even when he found him in the desert and joked about taking him with them since he had saved his life and ‘owned’ him, Kanuen hadn’t been like this. He had even dared to call him out on it and had continued to do so for the whole journey when he crossed a line.
When they reached Kai and said their goodbyes in front of that inn, Kanuen had also stayed calm. He might have panicked when things went downhill afterward but considering the circumstances, his reaction was still remarkably level-headed. Only when he broke down after everything was over did he ever come close to being like this.
But back then, Hou Dong had only stood in front of the door and heard those quiet sobs. He had never needed to see it. Now, he didn’t know what to do. Pretend that he didn’t know anything and step back outside, just quietly listening like the last time? Or should he rather go in and comfort them? But what could he say?
This situation had likely come about because they had returned to Sou. He was finally feeling safe so everything might be coming crashing down on him, and he might realize everything that happened. Up until now, maybe he had forced himself to keep calm because he couldn’t let his guard down in a foreign country and with foreign people all around him. But now he was home and could relax. So maybe that made him show this side of his.
Even though they had become a couple, Hou Dong wasn’t too sure if he was the right person to help Kanuen through this. Maybe it would be better to get somebody from his family?
He thought of Kanuen’s parents and couldn’t help but furrow his brows. He didn’t know too much about their relationship but he still felt that it might not be a good idea. His parents obviously believed very strongly. Since they felt that whatever happened was something that fate had thrown at them, it wouldn’t do to ask them to comfort their son. What would they say? ‘Don’t think too much. It’s what our god had in store for you’?
He really couldn’t imagine that that would help Kanuen at the moment. If it could, wouldn’t he have said something before? Since he hadn’t, that could only mean that he didn’t want to talk with them about it.
While Hou Dong hesitated, Kanuen’s sobs turned quieter and he finally raised his head, wiping the tears off his face and looking at someplace in front of him without anything specific to fix his eyes on.
“Is this it? Have you abandoned me?” He continued to stare at nothing in particular, before finally closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “I thought it was just because I left Sou. I thought that your voice couldn’t reach there. But then again, you still whispered to me in the beginning, didn’t you? I feel like I still heard your voice in the beginning.
“So what has changed since then? What did I do wrong? Is it that I left your kingdom? But I was given the chance, wasn’t I? So why should it be wrong? But maybe that isn’t it? Maybe there’s something else you weren’t satisfied with? So what is it? Did I make a mistake out there?”
He opened his eyes again and a sad smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “But what is it that I did? I followed fate as I always did. I went with those merchants when Hou Dong picked me up. I didn’t complain. I didn’t try to flee again. I just left with them as I thought was your intention. So how come you became quieter and quieter the further we went? Is it that you feel that my thoughts weren’t as unperturbed? Is it that I fell in love and I shouldn’t have?”
He fell quiet himself, staring into the air as if he could somehow find an answer that way. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. There was nothing to see in this temple. Iana had never shown themselves. This god of theirs … He didn’t know how they looked. He only knew their voice. And this voice, just like on this journey before, continued to stay silent.
Kanuen got up from the staircase, taking the last step and only stopping in front of the basin. He reached out, his fingers lightly brushing the rim. “I had a dream last night. Everything was silence. It makes me wonder … Is this how other people live?
“It was … horrible. Disconcerting. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t even know what to think and could only descent into panic. Is that how other people have to live the days of their lives?”
Kanuen sighed again, letting go of the basin and turning back, sitting down in front of it and leaning against it with his back. He looked up at the ceiling that was the only place in the temple that was decorated, showing the bright stars that one could see from the balustrade above the temple.
“Maybe it is because I never knew this life. I got so used to your voice that maybe I didn’t know what my own was. So taking it away … Is that you punishing me? Or did you want to show me another possible fate?” He lightly furrowed his brows, reaching out as if he could touch those stars above his head. “I thought about it. When the days went on and I got to know Hou Dong better, I thought about it more than once. I wondered if maybe life out there might be better for me. Before this, I’ve never once questioned whether I should be a priest or not. It was a part of my life. One that I couldn’t think I’d be able to live without. It was only after leaving Sou that I realized that there could be another life for me as well. Maybe that is it? Maybe you want me to decide on my own?”
He lowered his hand, rubbing his face instead. “Iana, it’s not that I don’t want to be your priest. To be honest, I can’t stand the silence. It’s alright as long as Hou Dong is at my side since we can talk. But as soon as I’m alone I will start to worry. In the end, why did you want me to be your priest? What about me is it that made you think I was the right person for this? What actually is my task?”
He shook his head at himself, still unable to wrap his head around all this. “I thought there would be a day when I would realize when I would find my task. But now, so many years have gone by and nothing has changed. Sou is the same. This town is the same as well. And even me … If not for fleeing the kingdom, I would still be the very same person. What kind of task can I have?”
Against better knowledge, he hoped that there would be an answer but the temple stayed silent. Kanuen stopped looking at the stars and instead lowered his head, gazing at his hands.
So many years, not even a single doubt. But then a few weeks had been able to change his whole life. He didn’t understand. He didn’t even know where he should start to try and understand. All of this was foreign, terrifying. He wanted to go back to the old days when he would hear this voice that could tell him what to do and what to pay attention to. He really wanted this guidance in his life. But at the same time, he couldn’t imagine losing what he had gained on this journey. Hou Dong … He had irreversibly fallen in love with him.
Kanuen smiled lightly, his voice falling to a whisper that was still clearly audible in the temple. “I don’t believe that you would punish me for falling in love. I’m sure that there is a place for love in your world. Wasn’t it that you even guided me to bring together a couple some years ago when they weren’t able to do it on their own? So you must have a heart for lovers. You probably look fondly upon them.
“So what is the meaning of this? Maybe you want to say that Hou Dong isn’t the right one for me? But I feel that he is. I feel that … he is the best person I’ll ever meet. Can’t you give me an answer?”
His eyes reddened and tears once again threatened to fall down his cheeks. He took a deep breath, dabbing at his eyes with his sleeves, trying to calm down. When he returned later on, he didn’t want to worry Hou Dong. If he had found out that he had left without a word, he might already be worried enough. He shouldn’t make things even more complicated. He didn’t know how to explain this after all. Hou Dong didn’t believe in what their people believed in. He had already questioned the role of the priests. If he told him that he was one of them now …
Kanuen sighed, not knowing what to do. He remembered how when the people in their town had some problem that they didn’t know how to solve, they would often come and ask him, hoping that Iana would give them some guidance through him. If they felt that the problems were too trivial to bother either their god or their priest, then they would ask their family.
But he couldn’t do that. His parents had always believed that he was infallible from the moment they realized that he was one of Iana’s chosen priests. There was only his brother. And Piul … As much as he loved his brother, he didn’t feel that he would be the right person to ask about this.
Right now, he finally understood why others wanted to hear another opinion than their own when they weren’t sure about something. It turned out that only having your own opinion was a very scary thing.
Kanuen closed his eyes again, pushing the thoughts away that were haunting him. There was nothing he could do about it right now. Iana wouldn’t speak. He could only come to terms with this.
Outside of the temple, Hou Dong leaned against the wall, also closing his eyes but his expression was far from the peace that was slowly settling on Kanuen’s face.
Iana’s priest? Had he heard that right just now? He rubbed his forehead, not knowing what to think. This wasn’t something that Kanuen had said to anybody but himself. There was no need to pretend and anyway, he believed that Kanuen wasn’t that type of person. He wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t truly believe in being a priest and what it entailed in Sou. Did that mean that he had really heard the voice of his god before?
Hou Dong lowered his hand, taking a deep breath. He remembered very well how he had reacted when Kanuen told him about the priests of Sou. He had thought that they were probably a bunch of corrupt old guys that would elect whoever would be the most favorable for them as king. But now it turned out that his lover was part of the group he had made fun of before. Who knew he could change his perspective this fast?
Hou Dong opened his eyes and pushed off the wall, stepping into the entrance of the temple. He might have hurt Kanuen before. That deserved an apology. He also hadn’t known any better so he was sure that Kanuen wouldn’t be too angry about it.
Still, he couldn’t stay away any longer. Obviously, this was something that couldn’t just be ignored. Kanuen was in pain. Not in a physical way but mentally. Something important to him had been ripped away and he couldn’t understand why or how. Even though he couldn’t tell him either but wasn’t it alright as long as he was there to be with him at this time? At the very least, it was much better than leaving him alone.
Kanuen looked up, surprise flashing over his face before he looked down in embarrassment. Hou Dong didn’t know the town well. If he had found that he wasn’t there when he woke up, there was no way he would have found him in the temple. In other words, he had already noticed when he had left and had probably followed him. He should have heard what he had just said.
Hou Dong could imagine that Kanuen was able to figure out what had happened so he didn’t explain. He walked over, climbed up the stairs and then sat down next to him, also leaning against the basin. He looked up at the ceiling that he had seen Kanuen watch before and felt a sense of awe.
He had seen paintings in their Hua country but never this kind of star-littered sky. There was … a strange beauty to it. It reminded him of that day when he had found Kanuen in the desert. It wasn’t something that was completely new: He had seen the night sky before just how he had seen beautiful people previously. But there was a certain sense of it being special. Maybe it was that normal people really couldn’t compare with Kanuen. He didn’t know. “If you want to talk about it … I’m here.” He hesitated and then reached out, wondering if Kanuen would really take his hand after he just eavesdropped on his conversation with his god.
Kanuen looked at that hand quietly and then reached out, interlacing his fingers with Hou Dong’s. “If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I wasn’t sure what you’d think if you knew. You didn’t believe in anything about Iana or our priests.”
Hou Dong nodded. “I brought that upon myself. When you told me about it, I shouldn’t have shut the idea down immediately. There might be something more to it than I was able to see from my point of view. I should have listened further before forming an opinion.”
“Aren’t you just saying that because it’s me?”
Hou Dong tilted his face to the side and smiled. “Maybe. But … It’s not just that I would say whatever because it’s you. I just … I trust you. You aren’t the type to lie. You’re a very honest person.”
Kanuen sighed and looked back up at the ceiling. “If this was just a few weeks earlier, then I might have believed you. I would’ve believed it myself. But now …” He fell silent and shook his head. “I don’t know if you understood everything I said before. It’s just that when I grew up, I was able to hear Iana’s voice. It’s not … not really a voice actually. It’s more like an intent that I can perceive. It’s really just a notion inside my head.
“I didn’t know what it meant when I was young. But I grew up with it. It was normal for me. And I heard from other priests later on that it is the same for them. I couldn’t imagine how it was to live without that. But after I left Sou … This intent was only faint. I knew which direction to go but that was all.”
“And then it stopped altogether?”
Kanuen nodded. “I thought that it was just the distance to Sou. As a priest, I learned quite a bit about our history and the stories about Iana. There wasn’t much about Iana’s influence in other places but I thought that maybe the connection just isn’t as strong out there. I was sure that Iana’s voice would return when I arrived back home. But as I said … That never happened. Not when we came closer and not even after we stepped over the border. And then I finally became really afraid. I can handle it if it’s only a few weeks or months and if I know that it’ll go back to the way it had been before. But when I imagined that I will never have those feelings again … I just feel that that wouldn’t be me anymore. Can you imagine that?”
Hou Dong kept quiet, taking the time to seriously consider it. Something about him that he couldn’t lose … Something that would change his whole life if it was lost … Was there something like that?
Up until now, it had only ever been the travels with his men. But that wasn’t something that could suddenly be taken from him, could it? His thoughts couldn’t help but flash to those moments when the merchants just declared that Kanuen would be their possession from now on.
Maybe that was it. If somebody took his freedom away from him like that, if he was forced to do what somebody else told him from now on and couldn’t make his own decisions, maybe that would be like what Kanuen was going through right now. If that was the case … “I guess it would be hard to adapt. You would probably want to somehow go back to how things had been before. You’d try to find some way but if there’s no opportunity, then there is nothing you can do, is there?”
Kanuen nodded. “That’s it. And I really don’t know if that is a life I can lead. Not that I have any other choice.” He looked up at the ceiling again, a sigh escaping his lips. “I’m trying to understand. Why did Iana do this? Why is Iana keeping quiet? But the more I think, the less I understand. Leaving was something that Iana gave me the opportunity to do. Meeting you … I also feel that it couldn’t have been a coincidence. There is no coincidence in our belief. There’s only fate. It is what Iana wants.
“I have never been as radical as my parents in my belief since I sometimes felt that when Iana was communicating some things it wasn’t quite as strong as other times. But I still feel that something like our meeting can’t be without reason. So what is it that Iana dislikes about me suddenly? Is it because of those men on Kai? Does that make me somehow … unworthy of hearing Iana’s voice?”
Hou Dong vehemently shook his head. “I doubt that. I mean I don’t know anything about your god but if things really are that intentional, then getting you into that situation and letting it unfold until that point … Why would your god want that to be the end of your time as a priest? I can’t believe that.”
Kanuen nodded. “Even if you don’t know about Iana, this is actually what I feel as well. It doesn’t make sense. None of that. But that is exactly what makes this so difficult to understand.”
Hou Dong nodded and pulled him into his arms, gently kissing his temple. “I’m sure you will be able to figure it out. Maybe not immediately but you definitely will in the future. Maybe … it just takes some time. I don’t know how exactly this works but this journey was difficult for you as well. You’ve experienced things that were hard on you. You encountered things that would probably never have happened in Sou. Maybe you just need some time to rest and take care of yourself before you can hear your god’s voice once again. Could that be?”
Kanuen nodded and buried deeper into Hou Dong’s arms. “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I guess I can only wait and see. If not … Well, maybe that’s also something Iana wants to tell me. Maybe my time as a priest is just over. Maybe it’s because when I met you there was another path in front of me and Iana felt that it would be a better idea to follow that path. Maybe that’s it.”
Hou Dong nodded and brushed through Kanuen’s hair, gently holding him. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. There’s no rush in finding out. Just … take your time to come back home. You’ll see about it then. Sooner or later, you’ll know what to do.
“And if you need to talk about it again, I’m there for you. Even if I can’t understand everything, I can listen. And maybe I can say a word or two that will somehow help you. I can only hope so.”
Kanuen glanced up and smiled. “You’re doing that very well. To be honest … If not for you right now, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I was desperate. More than I’ve ever been. It’s another kind of desperate than I felt in Kai. It’s … no, maybe it’s the same. I’m just feeling so deeply helpless. It’s just that the place this helplessness comes from is different. Back then, it was just my body. I knew I couldn’t run away from what was bound to happen. But right now, I feel that it comes from my soul. There is nobody trying to harm me but something seems wrong inside of me and there’s nothing that I can do about that, is there? It’s … it’s frustrating.”
“I know. That feeling, I know it very well.” After all, he had felt the very same when he stood in front of the door, having to hear Kanuen cry. There was nothing he could do, no words of comfort to offer, no gesture to calm him down and make everything be well again. Even now, he still felt the same. There was nothing he could do for him. And that hurt.