Shunche’s task wasn’t too difficult overall. Without having to take the dan into consideration, he was able to travel faster and thus reached En two days before the others. He didn’t take any time to rest and just went to arrange the necessary places.
Telling General Zhayai who was in charge of this town that the zhireng found by their dan would arrive soon and wanted to speak to some people so he could banish the demon successfully, the man got things solved fast. There was a bit of a problem in where to let them wait though.
Back when it became apparent that the priests alone would not be enough to make the demon return to where it came from, Jusha Lale had ordered for the evacuation of En before he went to ask the zhireng for help. In the plan that he had made with the ministers and generals, the people of the capital city were to be spread over the surrounding cities. That way, no one city would need to deal with all the ‘refugees’ from the capital and they could instead share the difficulties of having to accommodate so many people.
Despite this, adding several thousand people to a city would make free rooms be sparse. To gather the people that needed to be asked and then separate them in a way that would ensure that they couldn’t talk beforehand … Shunche really didn’t know how to do that.
General Zhayai was stumped just the same. “Does it need to be in different houses?”
Shunche gave a wry smile. “That would be preferable, yes.”
The general didn’t know what else to say. How was he supposed to organize that? “Well, both Madam Shaun and her children are in this city so this part isn’t a problem. Minister Agur is in one city over though. It’s not a problem to have him return in time but … I really don’t know where to put him.”
Shunche nodded slowly. “Other than that, we also need a house where the zhireng can stay.” And their dan which was much more important in his opinion but he couldn’t tell the general. Even though the dan hadn’t said so directly, he likely didn’t want anyone to know that he was back, not just the people they were supposed to interrogate.
General Zhayai pondered. “Then what if we had one house cleared out, would that be possible? Minister Agur could move in there as could the zhireng. Then afterward, he could go back to the city where he is currently relocated to. As for Madam Shaun, we could just ask her to go there for the duration of the conversation.”
Shunche pondered for a moment and finally nodded. “Yes, let’s do it that way then.” Anyway, if there weren’t more places available, then they weren’t. What else could they do?
General Zhayai nodded and then went to give the necessary orders.
Thus, by the time Susha Unhuor and the other two were about to arrive in the city, everything was prepared. Shunche had made sure that Minister Agur would arrive soon and had General Zhayai bring him to the room while he headed over to the city gate, and waited for the dan to arrive.
Jusha Lale had put on a cloak and pulled the hood down so that half his face was covered, making it much more difficult to recognize him for anyone that didn’t know him especially well. He had even switched from riding with Chomong to sitting on the horse behind Susha Unhuor and had actually left his guard behind in the last town. He lightly held onto the warrior’s robe, lowering his head further until it looked as if he was snuggling up against his back. Thinking about it was a little embarrassing but what could he do? It was best if nobody knew that he was back yet. That way, they could still ask some of the more uncomfortable questions.
Shunche froze slightly when he saw this scene but he still immediately came forward to receive him. He wanted to grab the reins of the horse but Susha Unhuor pulled them aside, clearly refusing.
“No need.” He got off the horse and then glanced at the young man that was still sitting on top. Despite or maybe especially because half his face was obscured, he looked beautiful. Not being able to see his eyes added a hint of mystery to his youthful charm. Even for him, it was difficult to take off his eyes.
Susha Unhuor contemplated asking him to get off the horse as well but then felt that it wouldn’t be right. Never mind that this person was the dan of Alo who he had no business ordering around, his appearance also made him a little reluctant to do so. He definitely wouldn’t call himself a man swayed by beauty but there was just a special quality to Jusha Lale that made it hard to treat him like others. Yes, in a sense, it was otherworldly.
After a moment of hesitation, he turned around and tugged at the reins himself, leading the horse the last bit of the path to the gates. “I am zhireng Susha Unhuor. I was asked by the dan to come and vanquish the evil in the city of En. I ask for entry to make my last preparations here.”
The guards were taken aback but at that moment Shunche already stepped forward. “He speaks the truth, let him pass.”
Recognizing Shunche as one of the king’s personal followers, the guard nodded but then his gaze swept over Jusha Lale’s figure. “Then this …”
Susha Unhuor looked up, his gaze complicated. “My lover.” Well, how else was he supposed to explain this?
The guard nodded as if that had been expected and then let the three of them pass. His gaze did follow them for a while though.
Jusha Lale did not say anything while Shunche was staring daggers at Susha Unhuor. But since his king was not speaking up, he had no business scolding the zhireng for his disrespectful actions and could only seethe by himself.
Susha Unhuor ignored him until he was sure that the guard from the gate wasn’t watching them anymore. Then, he turned to Shunche. “Where to?”
Shunche turned to his king instead. “Dan, do you want to take a rest first? You have been traveling without rest for so long.”
“No need. Just bring us to speak to the first person.”
Shunche nodded with some worry evident on his face. “Of course.” He led the two of them to a house in one of the alleys not far from the gate. This was actually the house of a local merchant. In the front was the shop where they sold jewelry, cloth bags, and fans. In the bag of the building were the family’s private rooms and the rooms of their servants.
For the time being, four rooms had been emptied out: In one of them was Jusha Lale’s aunt waiting, one was prepared for Minister Agur to wait in later, one would be given to the zhireng to rest, and one had been prepared ‘just in case’ of unexpected circumstances. At the very least, that was what Shunche had told General Zhayai. Actually, this room was for Jusha Lale. After all, he didn’t want his dan to have to share a room with that zhireng. He didn’t trust that man.
Jusha Lale finally dismounted in front of the door and Susha Unhuor handed the reins to a servant of the family waiting at the side. Shunche thanked the boy and then led the other two inside.
“Madam Shaun is already there. As for Minister Agur, he should have arrived as well but I will ask first. Please excuse me for a moment.” Shunche bowed his head and then left, going to ask one of the other servants.
Meanwhile, Jusha Lale and Susha Unhuor looked around.
“This doesn’t look bad. The building is big. They probably wouldn’t have run into each other yet.”
Jusha Lale nodded. “In fact, I think there aren’t any more people judging from what Shunche just said. They will probably have gone in the other direction so he didn’t have time to ask them to come here. I am afraid we would have to travel there if what my aunt and Minister Agur say isn’t enough.”
“Mn. Let’s hope it is. This Minister Agur …”
“His full name is Agur Suhi and he was a good friend of my uncle. In fact, the two of them grew up together and have stayed close since then. I don’t think they ever went for a longer period of time without seeing each other. Even for tasks outside of the capital city, my father would usually send them together because they were very familiar with each other, benefiting their work greatly. Minister Agur is probably the person who knows my uncle best.”
“I see. Your uncle’s name …”
Susha Unhuor nodded and then fell quiet again.
At that moment, Shunche already returned and bowed once more. “Minister Agur already arrived. Should I bring you to him first or would you rather meet Madam Shaun first?”
Jusha Lale looked at Susha Unhuor to get his opinion. Anyway, if somebody was watching, he couldn’t answer this question anyway.
“I would prefer to speak to Minister Agur first. If he was really so close with the dan’s uncle, it is much more likely for him to know something.”
Shunche glanced at the king who nodded slightly. Having his approval, he brought the two of them to the upper floor and then showed Jusha Lale to the room. “He is in here.”
Jusha Lale nodded but turned back to Susha Unhuor, lowering his voice. “Then I will wait close by while you go and speak to him?”
Susha Unhuor gave a hum. “It would be great if you were close enough to listen in.”
The two of them turned to Shunche with a questioning look.
Shunche motioned to the room next door. “This one is empty. Madam Shaun is in a room down the corridor. There is another empty room next to hers.”
Jusha Lale smiled faintly. “I knew why I sent you. You have done very well, Shunche.”
The guard hurriedly lowered his head, not daring to accept his king’s praise. Anyway, he had only done what he was supposed to do.
Jusha Lale’s smile only brightened and he turned to the empty room next to them. Opening the door and going inside, he found a table in the middle of the room. He went over, sat down, and nodded at Susha Unhuor to go. Anyway, there wasn’t much else that he could do.
“I will see what he tells me first. If I need help, I will come and ask but it shouldn’t be necessary.” For this kind of thing, he would rather speak to the person alone first. They would be much more natural if they didn’t have to worry about what their king would think. Even in normal families or communities, this was the case. If it involved a king, it would only be made more prominent.
Susha Unhuor nodded and motioned for Shunche to stay with the dan instead. He closed the door behind him to make sure that Jusha Lale wouldn’t be spotted. Then, he went over to the other room, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
Agur Suhi was sitting at the table very much like Jusha Lale one room over. When he heard the sound of the door, he looked up, observing the man in front of him. “I assume you are zhireng Susha?” He got up, his expression serious.
Susha Unhuor nodded and motioned back to the table. “Let’s sit down. I am not a man for many words so I would like to cut straight to the chase.”
The two of them sat down together and Susha Unhuor gave the other man a quick once-over out of the corner of his eye. The first thing he noticed was that Agur Suhi looked younger than expected. In fact, he might only be a few years older than him. But come to think of it, the dan had mentioned that his mother was older than his uncle. He hadn’t said by how many years exactly but it wasn’t strange that his uncle and possibly also his uncle’s best friend would be closer to them in age.
Save for his age, Agur Suhi was pretty much what he had expected: He wore a robe that was slightly understated but of high-quality when looking more closely, his hair was tied up neatly and he sported a short, well-groomed beard. Other than that, his face was a little nondescript and his hands didn’t give any indication that they had ever been used for hard work.
To describe him in a few words: This man looked like he was one for words, not for the sword. Somebody that valued his ability to utter his thoughts in a well-thought-out manner and did not want to impress with anything but his ideas.
Susha Unhuor retracted his gaze when he came to that conclusion and got to the topic they had met for. “You know about what has transpired at the royal palace so I guess I will not have to explain anything. I happen to have a few questions that will allow me to gauge the overall situation better and better the chances of me defeating the demon.”
Agur Suhi nodded. “Please, go ahead. I will naturally do whatever I can to help”
Susha Unhuor gave a nod as well but slightly furrowed his brows as if in deep thought. “From what the dan told me, the demon’s first victim happened to be his uncle. Usually, there will be a reason as to why a person is chosen first. I was wondering if you had some insight into that seeing that you seem to have been his friend for a long time.”
“I am indeed his friend. Unfortunately, I can not imagine why the demon would choose to kill him. Reng was … a very good man. Very caring toward his family and friends, very successful in his work …”
“What was his work?” The dan hadn’t really said much about his uncle past his basic personality and even that had been quite concise. Well, who would like to talk about a person that wanted to kill you?
“Oh, he was part of the army. He usually stayed in the capital though so his name isn’t that widespread. I guess you wouldn’t have heard of him.”
Susha Unhuor narrowed his eyes. This was quite interesting. It was actually a possible reason for summoning a demon. Maybe Shaun Reng had felt stifled under the reign of his brother-in-law and now his nephew. Maybe he thought that if these two were gone and somebody else — no matter whether it was him or somebody else — acceded to the throne, he would have a chance to go out and make his name known. After all, while his family might want to take extra measures to make sure that nothing happened to him, others wouldn’t have such scruples.
It could also be that his aspirations had been much grander than that. Sometimes, there were some idiots that believed they could vanquish a demon themselves and wouldn’t need a zhireng for that. If somebody longed to be known for their achievements, they might cause a situation where they could facilitate those themselves. It wasn’t impossible.
No matter which one it was, it would at least provide an explanation as to why this person that had seemingly never threatened his nephew’s reign before would suddenly go to such lengths. Thinking of this, he couldn’t help but question it. “Could it be that he was unsatisfied with only being in the capital instead of making his name known outside?”
Agur Suhi shook his head though. He didn’t hesitate for even a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Reng was a very family-oriented person and his family was here in the capital city. While he would not have minded going out to fight, he was satisfied with being able to stay here and spend more time with them. Fame would have been nothing to him in comparison.”
Susha Unhuor closely watched his expression but he couldn’t see any obvious signs of a lie. Whether that was because this man was telling the truth or what he believed to be the truth or just because he was a splendid liar … it remained to be seen. “Then was there anything else he was unsatisfied with?”
“Nothing that I knew of, no.”
“Hm.” Susha Unhuor continued to look at him but Agur Suhi did not even flinch. He really seemed to believe what he said. “This is a difficult situation. I cannot vanquish the demon without sufficient information.”
Agur Suhi’s expression turned subtle. “Zhireng, if I knew … I would certainly tell you. But I cannot possibly imagine what Reng could have done to deserve such an end. He really was a good person. Committed to his family, attentive toward his friends, loyal to his king, devoted to his cause … I cannot see anything he was lacking.”
Susha Unhuor’s gaze roamed through the room. This man had mentioned Shaun Reng’s family more than once. Could this be a hint? “How committed was he to his family? Committed enough to want the throne for them?”
Agur Suhi’s brows drew together. While nobody had said it explicitly and Jusha Lale had even had it announced that his uncle tried to save him, he had been working close enough with both Shaun Reng and Jusha Lale to know that this was likely not the case. He didn’t want to believe it no matter what the circumstances pointed to though. “There would be no need for that, would there? The king is half his blood.”
Susha Unhuor gave a faint smile. “Half his sister’s blood if what I was told is true. Or do you know something else?”
In the room next door, Shunche tightly gripped onto his sword’s handle, wanting to storm over and hack at this warrior for suggesting that something sordid had happened behind the scenes. One look at the dan and one would know that no such thing was there! How dare he make such assumptions!
Jusha Lale himself just faintly raised his brows. This was certainly a first for him. People had often insinuated or at least questioned whether he was fit to be king based on his looks but nobody had gone so far as to state that he might not be the previous king’s son. That was really … going too far.
Agur Suhi seemed to think the same. He actually leaped to his feet and stared at Susha Unhuor with blazing eyes. “What … what are you even saying?! His Majesty is clearly the late king’s son.”
Susha Unhuor merely continued to look at him, not at all impressed by this man’s sudden display of a temper. In fact, he was a little intrigued, feeling that he must have come close to the truth somehow. “So nobody had an affair?”
“Then why did you hesitate?”
“I …” Agur Suhi gnashed his teeth. “What kind of questions are you asking? I am merely surprised that a zhireng would go so far. You are completely wrong. There is no such thing at all. Reng loved his family.”
Susha Unhuor gave another hum. There it was again. He loved his family, he was committed to his family and family-oriented, he wanted to stay with them and was very caring toward them … Why mention it so often if there was nothing more to it? Was there really a need to stress it this much? He didn’t believe it.
He pondered but couldn’t figure it out. Without having known the person, it was hard to say how much of this was the truth and how much was covering something up. Maybe this Shaun Reng had really just loved his family very much and been open about it. He felt that it was unlikely but there was still a possibility that it was true. He couldn’t neglect that. Otherwise, he would be the one to pay for it first if it made the demon more difficult to vanquish. And should he fail … No, he did not even want to think about it.
“If it is nothing of the like, then tell me what was wrong instead. He would not have been the demon’s first victim if there hadn’t been anything wrong with him. That isn’t how it works.”
Agur Suhi still shook his head, refusing to admit it. “There was nothing of the like.”
Susha Unhuor’s brows furrowed together. “You do realize that he is a dead man, don’t you? No matter what you say, it will not cause him any problems going forward. Not saying anything will not just cause problems for others but actually put everybody’s lives in jeopardy, do you want that?”
Agur Suhi closed his eyes but still shook his head. “There was nothing like that.”
Susha Unhuor couldn’t help but feel frustrated. This guy! Did he not understand what the consequences of his actions would be? Seething inwardly, he took a deep breath to calm down.
Maybe it was that Agur Suhi had known all along but because they were friends or because he expected some windfall after the current dan died, he hadn’t done anything to prevent the demon from being summoned. Maybe now that Shaun Reng — the only one who knew about his involvement — was dead, he saw this as a chance to pretend it had never happened. After all, as long as nobody knew, there could at most be rumors. It was much better for him now that the current king was still alive and he needed to live under his rule. Who would want their lord to know that they hated him enough to want him to be killed?
Thinking of this possibility, Susha Unhuor tried another approach.
“Should telling me cause problems for you … Well, you do not have to worry. I will not tell anyone about what I hear in this room. Whether that is your family or the king, I will keep quiet about this. To me, my only task is to defeat the demon. I need to know some information for that. That is all that I want. I don’t care about any of the other things.”
Agur Suhi kept quiet for a moment, still not looking at Susha Unhuor. In the end, he sighed. “You have it all wrong, zhireng. Reng was a good man. There was nothing like that.”
Susha Unhuor leaned back and sighed as well. “Nothing like that …” This actually told him more than anything that Agur Suhi had said before. He had asked him whether there was anything wrong but he had still spoken about ‘something like that’. Didn’t this mean that there was precisely something ‘like that’?
It was just that because of whatever reason, he did not want to name this thing. Well, he could not force him. And maybe there were still other people around that would have more guts. He would just go and speak to them. “Very well, if you’re not privy to this information, then maybe somebody else is. I will go and speak to everyone else. I heard he had a wife?”
Agur Suhi slowly opened his eyes and nodded. “He had. She’s a lovely woman.”
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly and then got up. “Very well, then I will start with her.” He turned to go but stopped halfway out of the door. “Are you sure that there’s nothing else you want to tell me?” He waited but the other man did not speak up. In the end, Susha Unhuor could only leave and go over to the room where Jusha Lale and his guard were waiting. Well, this had not gone the way he hoped it would.