When Susha Unhuor got up several hours later, he found the dan sitting in the room next door with a cup of tea in his hand. His skin was slightly pale and he looked as if he hadn’t slept at all. In fact, the past few days had been pretty similar. It seemed that this matter with the demon was causing him quite a bit of distress, not letting him rest at all.
Well, it was no wonder. He had the responsibility for all these people but could only ask others for help, needing to rely on their goodwill to solve the situation. It couldn’t be a good feeling.
He walked over and sat down, taking a cup from the tray and pouring himself some tea as well. “There aren’t many things left that we can do. I was wondering what you thought about speaking with the high priest. Since you mentioned that he had been there with you that day, he might have noticed something that could be helpful.”
“In any case, making sure of it can’t hurt, can it? I will have Shunche contact the capital to see how we can go about it.”
Susha Unhuor nodded and then quietly sipped the tea while giving the dan a glance. Save for the fact that he didn’t look well-rested, his expression was quite a bit better than when he had left the room. He really couldn’t help but wonder what had happened but he didn’t dare to ask.
Anyway, this had nothing to do with him and they didn’t know each other well enough to just ask something out of curiosity. Asking about his private life had already been too daring and he had at least been able to somewhat justify that with what Madam Shaun had said. This though … No, he had no right to question him.
A while later, steps rang out once again and Jusha Lale lightly called out. “Shunche.”
The steps accelerated and the guard reached the door in a moment, his hand on the hilt of his sword as if he was worried he might need to draw it.
Susha Unhuor gave him an insipid look. These two guards had been acting quite hostile toward him since the day they had met. Most likely, they had accompanied the dan on his whole journey so they would know what had happened. And apparently, they thought that he could not be trusted around the dan. That did make him wonder even more what had happened previously. Had one of the zhireng tried to attack him? He couldn’t understand why they would do something like this but it was the only guess he could come up with for the moment.
While Susha Unhuor was musing to himself, Jusha Lale turned to Shunche. “The zhireng would like to meet with the high priest. Please make arrangements.”
The guard nodded and then left with another look at Susha Unhuor. Considering that Chomong had returned, he felt a little better about leaving but he was still worried. Having two guards with him would definitely be better. But since matters had to be arranged, it couldn’t be changed. After all, the dan’s presence could not be divulged to others just yet.
As for the king himself, he just went back to sipping his tea with a neutral expression as if he hadn’t thought about this at all.
Susha Unhuor accompanied him for a while before looking at the door. “Your other guard …”
“Has returned some time ago.”
Susha Unhuor nodded and fell quiet again. He lightly drummed on the table, wondering where exactly that guard was right now.
After a moment, Jusha Lale raised his gaze to him. “If there is something that the zhireng wants to ask, then why don’t you just go ahead? Chomong is currently resting. Just like us, he has a long journey behind him. In fact, with having to guard me on his own, he was probably even worse off than us. Now that we are in the city where we don’t have to fear attacks from anyone save for the demon itself maybe, I told him to take his time to gather his strength. So whatever it is you want to say, you don’t have to worry about being overheard.”
Susha Unhuor awkwardly cleared his throat when he realized that he had been seen through. Now, he couldn’t pretend that there was nothing no matter how impolite it was to bring up. He didn’t dare to directly broach the subject though. Instead, he went for already familiar territory. After all, Jusha Lale had shown that he didn’t mind answering questions in that regard. Maybe after discussing that for a while, Jusha Lale would feel more comfortable and not mind the other question as much. Also, he couldn’t pretend like he wasn’t interested in the answer to this one at all.
Susha Unhuor shifted in his seat, trying to think of a good way to start but even when he didn’t ask directly, it still seemed a bit difficult. He regretted more and more that he hadn’t been able to continue the conversation before. In the end, he could only grit his teeth and at least give a small warning. “It is nothing much. It’s just … it is more of a personal question.”
“Go ahead. If it is too personal, I will refrain from answering.”
Susha Unhuor nodded at that. “Fair enough. It is … I was wondering about what you said before I went to talk with that servant girl. About having feelings for neither men nor women.”
Jusha Lale gave him a curious look. “What about that?” He certainly hadn’t expected the zhireng to ask about that. But come to think of it, he had seemed quite interested before. Maybe this wasn’t too strange after all.
Susha Unhuor once again cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably. He really was curious about it. It was just … was that the kind of question you could just ask somebody? Especially a king? But since he had already talked about it … maybe he wouldn’t mind at all. Maybe he was just worrying too much. “I know that this doesn’t concern me at all but I was wondering if that was the truth.”
Jusha Lale slightly raised his brows. “Are you accusing me of lying to you?”
“No, no, not at all. It was just … it struck me as a little curious.”
The king gave a hum and poured himself another cup of tea. “Well, what can I say? These feelings … they are there or they aren’t. While I do long to have a relationship like I watched my parents have one, the person …” His voice slowly faded and he shook his head. “I do not know. I guess right now might not be a suitable moment to think about it either. I just know that no matter who it was, I’ve never had that desire to get close. You might laugh at me but even after several years as king, even at the age I am at, I have never been with somebody.”
Susha Unhuor nodded, once again feeling his heartbeat speed up. This was not what he had expected but he could not help but he was happy to hear it. It made him feel … a bit more normal, probably. “I do believe you. I don’t think that it is anything bad either.”
Jusha Lale gave a faint smile at that. “I guess in general, you might be right with that. In the current situation, it is indeed a problem though.”
“Can’t you … just appoint somebody else as your heir? I mean just for the time being. If you do end up having a child later on, you could still change it back.”
Jusha Lale nodded. “I think that is what I will end up doing. To be honest, I don’t see me having a child anytime soon. Or … ever maybe.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. To be honest, he would’ve liked to ask a little further but he was afraid that this would really be going too far. After all, asking him who he was attracted to or not was one thing. But a child … wouldn’t he indirectly be asking him what was going on in his bedroom? That seemed a little wrong.
Although … it did make him think of something that he still had a bit of trouble understanding. “To be honest, the reason why I was originally wondering was because of what happened in the Sundang temple. If you do not care about men at all, why …” He stopped speaking and just gave him a slightly embarrassed look. He really didn’t cope too well with this. Fighting demons seemed easier in comparison.
Jusha Lale looked at him, his gaze slipping over Susha Unhuor’s face. There wasn’t much of an expression he showed. “Didn’t I already explain this? I guess you might not believe me but it was not because of you. It was merely because there was nothing else to give you.” He slightly raised his brows as if he had suddenly thought of something. “I am not trying to say that you are lacking in any way. It is certainly on me that I felt that way.”
Susha Unhuor originally hadn’t been thinking about that at all but when Jusha Lale especially pointed out that it wasn’t because of his appearance, he couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious. Was it that he was ugly? So far, he had never really thought about this and he felt that if he had wanted to, he could have had several more partners before. In any case, there had been a fair share of both women and men showing interest in him. He shouldn’t be …
He shook his head at himself, somewhat annoyed that he was even pondering that. What did it matter? He wasn’t looking for that kind of thing and he had wanted to know something completely different. “Still. Why even come up with such an idea in the first place?”
Jusha Lale’s expression immediately turned colder when he asked that question. After a heartbeat, he spoke up but not to answer. “Anyway, I’m quite curious about you. As a zhireng, it must be difficult to find a partner. This kind of life where your life is constantly fraught with danger must be difficult to accept for anyone. Or is it that as a zhireng, you would try to be with another zhireng? Are you more interested in women? Are there even any female zhireng?”
Susha Unhuor smiled wryly. It was pretty obvious that the king was trying to change the subject. Well, he couldn’t fault him for that. “There are indeed female zhireng. But as I said in the Sundang temple, I am not interested in women, nor am I interested in men. I guess I am very much like the dan in that aspect. That is what originally had me curious after all.”
Jusha Lale nodded slowly. “Then for your future … have you thought about what to do? As the king, there are some things I have to take into consideration. As a zhireng, what about you?”
Susha Unhuor sighed at that and poured himself another cup of tea as well. “To be honest, I’m as much at a loss as you are. People probably expect me to take a wife and have some children but there is no desire to do so.
“I think that I would like to settle down one day though. Living as a zhireng is not quite what I wish for. I would much rather have a place I could call home. I don’t need any excitement. To have somebody at my side who understands me, somebody that I can talk to …” He fell quiet and then gave a low hum before looking back up at the king. “Being some years older than you, I can tell you that these feelings won’t suddenly start appearing. I gave it a try in the past — both with women and with men — in the hope that somehow, I would manage to meet the expectations that were put on me.
“I guess … it is not that the act itself that is not enjoyable. But looking at a person, I usually can’t bring myself to feel anything specific about them. Beauty doesn’t matter either. I just … I don’t know. It’s just not something I think about I guess.”
This time, it seemed that he had the dan’s interest. “Have you regretted it? Giving it a try, I mean.”
“Well, I guess I would not be missing much if I hadn’t but I do not actively regret it. I just think that it was worth giving it a try just to see that it didn’t change anything. You see, when I am in the mood, whether I take care of it myself or am with another person, it is both alright with me. In fact, I think I prefer just doing it on my own. It gets the job done and I don’t feel like I have taken advantage of somebody.
“When there is somebody else involved …” He pondered for a moment how to say this but still had a hard time coming up with how to put it. “I don’t know how to say this. I guess it’s that sharing my bed with somebody feels quite intimate and even if I enjoy the act itself, I know that it has less to do with the person in question but more with myself and my own body. It feels kind of dishonest.”
Jusha Lale slowly nodded. “I think I understand what you mean.”
“Well, it could be that I’m thinking too much. But it does feel like there are some expectations attached to it that I can’t meet. Having a long-term relationship with another person that can’t understand how I feel … I can’t see myself in that.
“In the end, I think that trying this out helped me find myself though. It was also one of the things that contributed to my decision to finally go to the Sundang temple. I needed some time for myself to gather my thoughts. Traveling around, fighting against demons, putting up with all the things that people expect of you … It is not always easy to do. I couldn’t have gone on without some solitude to find to myself.”
Jusha Lale nodded again, his expression once again pensive. His lips opened but then he seemed to hesitate, finally just taking another sip of the tea. The words he had wanted to say were as if downed with the liquid.
Susha Unhuor gave a faint smile. “Whatever it is, you can say it. Anyway, it is just the two of us here right now. And who knows? After I go and fight against the demon, I might not even come back if things turn out badly. Then whatever it is, nobody other than you will know about it. And even if I do come back … I’m not one to poke my nose into other people’s business more than necessary. What you do not want others to know about, they will not find out from me.”
Jusha Lale closed his eyes and then sighed. He did not want to say it but, on the other hand, when was he supposed to talk about it? He would not dare to do so in front of somebody he would see regularly in the future. But with Susha Unhuor …
He didn’t think that this man wouldn’t come back. After all, since the day they had met in the Sundang temple, he had always seemed calm and collected and went about things in an organized manner. If there was somebody that could defeat this demon, then it was him. But even if he returned, after the demon was vanquished, wouldn’t he leave En and return to his old life? In that case, he might as well tell him. Maybe it would help to speak about it once. He would only know if he tried.
Jusha Lale exhaled slowly and then lowered his gaze, not daring to look the zhireng in the eyes while he spoke up. “When I said that I had not been with anyone before, that was not wrong but it was not quite right either. Actually, not too long ago, I did something that I have since come to regret.”
Susha Unhuor gave him a deep look before he hurriedly lowered his eyes as well. Something told him that he would not like to hear what was going to come afterward. He wondered if he should say something but finally could not find the words before Jusha Lale already spoke up again.
“You asked me why I would have done that in the Sundang temple, how I even came up with such an idea if I was not attracted to you or … men in general. To be honest, it was certainly not my idea. Rather than that, it came from somebody else.
“One of the zhireng I went to see before you promised that he would vanquish the demon. But he said that considering he might die and I had nothing else to give, he would at least want to enjoy himself for one night. I guess he saw it as some kind of … parting gift. Well, I was not in a position to say no to that.”
Susha Unhuor’s stomach turned. The dan was beautiful so he couldn’t say that he was surprised that somebody would want to take advantage of a situation like this. He was disappointed though. Was this what had become of the zhireng? Was this the type of behavior that they should show after they had been blessed by the gods with the strength to vanquish evil? Wasn’t it rather that this person had actually given in to evil himself?
His grip around the teacup tightened and he gritted his teeth, barely managing to get the next words out. “So you finally accepted but it was all for naught because the person did not manage to win over the demon. No wonder. A zhireng that actually does something like this would slowly lose the blessing of the gods and thus their power. You felt forced to agree. In the end, that is still the same as forcing you even if you might have said yes.”
Jusha Lale gave him a long look. “What you said is not wrong. Putting me in this situation is the same as forcing me. You’re wrong in another way though. It’s not that he lost. It is that he never went back to the capital city to fight the demon. He took his … ‘reward’ and then he vanished.
“That is why I regret giving in. If he had gone to the capital city and even just tried, then I wouldn’t mind it. For my people, I’m willing to do it. No matter what I have to endure, as long as it gives them the chance to stay alive, I will do it. But he did not even do that. He just left. Making me give something for nothing.”
Susha Unhuor’s face darkened even further. “Who was it?”
The young dan shook his head though. “Why bother? It has already happened. That cannot be changed anymore. And even if you know, what would you do with that knowledge? I do not want to bring trouble to the zhireng. There aren’t many in the first place.”
Susha Unhuor shook his head, a little vexed at the king’s behavior. “The zhireng are not one community that stands together. Most of us have nothing to do with each other unless we’ve traveled together for some time. In fact, as far as I am aware, quite a few of us don’t get along at all.”
“So I would not be inciting trouble between you. I see. But still, there’s no use in talking about it. It will not be changed anymore. It is in the past. Right now, my only concern is that my people will be saved. That is all that matters.”
“But didn’t you say that you regret it?”
“And I will continue to regret it until I manage to make my peace with what has happened. That will not be changed is because I tell you who it was sent maybe have the gratification of seeing you go and make trouble for him. I would feel much better if you just focus on the demon here in En. That is what I came to ask your help for. That is all that I want.”
Susha Unhuor was unhappy with that but he could hardly force the dan to tell him. “We can talk about this again after I defeat the demon.”
“If you so wish.” Anyway, it was not like he could just refuse. He owed this person. Even more so if he really managed to defeat the demon. By then, he definitely would tell him anything that he wanted to know. Although … he should probably tell him even less by then. To bog him down with even more of his problems … How could he do that? “Anyway, I guess that should answer your questions.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. “It does. Quite a few more of them than I would dare to ask actually.” Yes, even the question he originally had wanted to ask was now answered. He actually hadn’t expected that to happen anymore. “It also explains why your guards were like that toward me. They probably thought I would be like that person as well.”
“I’m sorry for how they behaved. Obviously, you had no such intentions. Otherwise, you would have used the opportunity in the Sundang temple as soon as I offered myself.”
Susha Unhuor sighed. “Well, I can hardly blame them. They …” He fell quiet mid-sentence, giving Jusha Lale a long look. “Your guards do know about this, don’t they?”
The king’s expression turned slightly awkward. “Let’s say that man did not care very much about my face. Telling me in front of them what he wanted, did not seem to bother him at all. Shunche and Chomong were not happy, to say the least. They probably wanted to attack him immediately. I ordered them to step back though. Anyway, while I was not happy either if this was his condition, then what could I have done? How could I have known …” He shook his head and then sighed. “Anyway, it’s done. I guess you don’t have any more questions?”
Susha Unhuor turned aside, understanding the hint he was giving him. Obviously, the dan had more than enough of talking about this subject. And he could understand it. It was regretful enough. Most likely, he would’ve liked to forget about it. He should not remind him of it this much.
With that, the two of them fell quiet. Soon enough, Shunche returned with a message from the high priest.
“I’m afraid I have failed the dan’s task. The high priest did not feel comfortable leaving the capital city at this moment. He refused to come here.”
Jusha Lale gave him a long look and finally smiled. “It is not that you failed. It is rather that I failed to take the whole picture into consideration when I send you there. The priests will likely be more than busy with keeping the demon at bay for now. Most likely, not a single one of them is able to leave for the time being, especially so the high priest. I should’ve thought of this before.” He turned to Susha Unhuor, his gaze questioning. “I’m afraid that the only possibility to meet with the high priest will be to go to the capital itself.”
Susha Unhuor nodded at that. “Then let’s do that. Anyway, the people here aren’t able to tell us anything new. It would be best to find out what the high priest has to say. After that, I will immediately continue to the palace and take care of the demon. If there is no new information to be had, then I should not waste any more time. That would only allow it to get stronger.”
“Then when do you want to set off?”
“Let’s prepare immediately and go over. There is not much needed. In fact, for me, just my weapon will be enough. As for you …” He gave Jusha Lale a look. “Actually, you should probably stay here. It isn’t good for you to be close to the demon.”
“Are you afraid that it would try to attack me? In that case, maybe I should accompany you even more. Having some bait there to distract the demon would definitely be easier for you, wouldn’t it?”
Susha Unhuor lightly shook his head and got up. “Having some bait wouldn’t be bad. Having to protect the king of the country of Alo while battling a demon would make things more difficult though.”
“Then what if you did not have to protect me? I do not mind whatever happens to me. As long as I can save my people —”
Susha Unhuor walked out of the room, still shaking his head. “I would like for you to accompany me to see the high priest just so we can talk about what exactly happened in the ceremonial hall that day. After that, I want you to return here.”
Jusha Lale sighed. He wished that there was something more he could do himself but apparently, that wasn’t possible. In any case, he would not make more trouble for the zhireng just because of his own selfish desires. If this person said that it wouldn’t help at all if he was there, then it wouldn’t. He had to take his word as the truth on this.
He followed him out of the room, picking up the cloak he had worn before on the way. Putting it on, he once again pulled up the hood, hiding his face. “Well, if you insist, then we will do it that way. If you feel that my suggestion isn’t bad but you were just feeling sorry for me, then you don’t have to though. Whatever is needed, I’m willing to do it.”
Susha Unhuor grabbed the spear from his room and then turned back, stopping in front of Jusha Lale on the way out. “If you really are willing to do anything, then you should really stay back. I’m not asking for anything more. Killing demons is the zhireng’s job. We don’t need help for it.”
The dan nodded, not arguing any further. The two of them left the house and Shunche hurried to get the horses, this time returning with three.
Susha Unhuor lightly raised his brows. “Is this smart though?” He could understand why the guard would do this after what Jusha Lale had just told him but he didn’t quite agree.
Jusha Lale looked from one animal to the other and then shook his head. “Shunche, you can take one back. I will ride with the zhireng.” Anyway, at the moment, there was still the possibility that somebody was plotting against him. He could not expose that he had returned so soon. So for the time being, for the sake of keeping his presence a secret, he would have to continue to pretend to be the zhireng’s lover. And as a lover … would he really ride without his man? Jusha Lale shook his head at that thought and then got onto the horse, waiting for Susha Unhuor to get up after him.
Shunche obviously wasn’t happy but he still nodded his head and brought the other horse back before getting onto his own and following the two of them out of the city.
Soon enough, they came to the other side of the town from where they could ride straight toward the capital city. It would likely take about half a day if one walked there but on horseback, they would not even need an hour.
Before the gates came into view, Susha Unhuor leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Do you think it might help if we let that Agur Suhi know that we will be going to the capital city without having found out anything?”
Jusha Lale turned his head, and then slightly leaned back when he noticed just how close the warrior was to him. “What do you want to achieve with that?”
“I still think that he knows something. Maybe he isn’t sure of it but he has a hunch. He is obviously uncomfortable with saying it but if nobody else spilled the beans, or if nobody else has anything to spill, then maybe he would make up his mind to give us the information we needed if he knew that we were going there almost unprepared.”
Jusha Lale slightly furrowed his brows. “I know Minister Agur as somebody who might be a bit indecisive actually. He’s a good man but he sometimes has trouble making the best decision. What he knows might be something that would tarnish my uncle’s reputation.”
“Yes, that means our guess is most likely right. But I would still like to make sure. Do you think it would be possible?”
Jusha Lale’s expression was thoughtful. “Well, whether it works or not … It can’t hurt to give it a try, can it? In any case, it would likely not cause us to lose too much time. Even though he already returned to the other city, it’s not that far. We might as well just do it.
“If it works, you will gain valuable information, and fighting the demon will be easier. If not … well, we will at least not have lost anything.” He hesitated for a moment and then gave Susha Unhuor a worried look. “That … is the case, isn’t it? Waiting a bit longer won’t allow the demon to become significantly stronger, will it?”
Susha Unhuor shook his head. “Usually, no. Although it is hard to say without knowing what type of demon it is. With your uncle being dead, if he really was the one who summoned it, then there shouldn’t be too much of a risk involved though. I guess it is safe to proceed.”
Jusha Lale heaved a sigh of relief. “Very well. Let’s do that then. Exactly how do you want to go about it? Just have Shunche or Chomong tell him?”
Susha Unhuor raised his gaze to the sky, narrowing his eyes. They had to find a swift way to do this. Something that would make that Agur Suhi decide fast. For that, a rumor might be enough. After all, he had known that he would leave soon. The problem was probably that he did not mean much to him. He could not see what exactly was at stake here. They would need to make it more obvious. After a moment, he looked back at Jusha Lale. “Say … How is your relationship with that Minister Agur?”
“Mine? Well, I’d say it is not bad.” He pondered for a moment and his expression grew subtle. “Actually, come to think of it, after my father’s death, my uncle would sometimes bring him along. I guess at that time, he felt a bit like a second uncle to me. Even though neither he nor I would ever have said that out loud.”
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly. “That does sound rather close. In that case … how about lending me your name for a bit?”
Jusha Lale raised his brows. “What do you intend to do?” He slightly turned in the saddle, trying to get a better look at Susha Unhuor’s face.
“Let’s not talk about that here. In fact, I will need you to prepare something.” With that, he made his way over to the gates and left the city, following the road to the one in the other direction.