When the two of them stepped into the temple and made their way over to the high priest’s study, he didn’t even seem surprised when he looked up and saw the two of them in the wedding robes as if he had long expected for this to happen.
“Su anqeng …” Jusha Lale smiled a little embarrassed but still spoke up. “I guess you can imagine why we are here.” Somehow, he felt awkward saying it out loud. He wasn’t quite sure why either. Maybe it was because he knew that everyone was aware that he had only met Susha Unhuor a little over half a year ago. Maybe it was because while it wasn’t unlawful for two men to marry, it was still sure to raise some eyebrows if one of them was the king of a country. Maybe it was the seemingly hurried and secretive manner they did this in without any witnesses or guests to accompany them or any announcement beforehand. Or maybe he just felt awkward in front of the high priest because he feared to be judged for marrying this shortly after they had just weathered a crisis.
Still, no matter his feelings he wanted to go through with this. While Susha Unhuor’s proposal might have come as a surprise, it was a positive one. If there was one person in the world he could imagine being married to, it would be this man. So why would he step back?
The high priest got up from where he was sitting and put down the brush unhurriedly. “I am afraid there is no way to overlook a pair of wedding robes, dan, so I would guess you are here to have me hold the ceremony for you. The fact that you and zhireng Susha are here on your own without anyone else accompanying you, tells me that you likely don’t want to make this into a big thing.”
Jusha Lale inclined his head, some of the awkwardness dissipating when the high priest stayed so calm and showed no sign of judgment. “If that would be possible, yes. If there are other requirements, we will naturally comply with them.” After all, he wanted their wedding to count. If others were necessary, he wouldn’t forgo that step.
The high priest shook his head though. “There are only two things important for a wedding: The first is that the couple sincerely wants to marry each other. That one is fulfilled, I’d assume. Otherwise, you would not have come here to ask this of me. The second is that the gods are your witness. It doesn’t matter which gods you choose for that but the closer you feel to them, the better. Nothing else is needed.
“You wouldn’t even need me there to be able to count yourself as a married couple as long as you follow all the right steps while conducting the ceremony. While a priest can officiate a wedding, the ones who give their blessing are still the gods so only they are truly essential.”
Jusha Lale and Susha Unhuor exchanged a glance and nodded, having come to an agreement without words.
“Well, we’d still like you to officiate our wedding.” Even though they might not need a priest, it still gave this marriage of theirs an air of officialness. If somebody spoke up in the future and said they doubted this wedding, then the high priest would be able to bear witness for them that it had truly happened.
Furthermore … he had said that the wedding would count if they followed the right steps. While they might have seen a few weddings over the course of their lives, that didn’t mean that they had any intimate knowledge of how it was done. In case they took a wrong step … wouldn’t that mean their wedding was not valid? They’d rather not risk that.
The high priest nodded. He wasn’t a man of many words so when he had their agreement, he motioned for them to follow him into the hall to prepare the ceremony.
This was the same ceremony hall where Jusha Lale had gone for the year-end ceremony. The brazier was once again standing at the side, the flames that the goddess En had gifted humankind burning just as hot as ever.
Jusha Lale couldn’t help but gaze at it, his thoughts turning complicated. It had been at this place that everything started to go awry. He had still thought that he would be able to control the damage the demon might cause up until the day when his uncle appeared in this hall and was finally burned to death by this holy fire. That had been a clear sign that things had long been worse than he had dared to admit to himself. And now, after a journey that had him hovering between fear and hope all the time, he came back here, having solved the crisis and looking hopefully into the future once again. He really didn’t know what to make of that.
Susha Unhuor gave him a moment to himself but then squeezed his hand to reassure him, pulling him out of his thoughts. Jusha Lale smiled faintly and then followed him to the other side of the room where the high priest was already waiting in front of the altar.
There was no need to think of these things now. No matter what, the past was the past and it was this past that had led to the present and would allow him to maybe have the future he had started to imagine. While there might be regrets, he couldn’t change those things. He could only try to make sure that, going forward, there would be less of them. And he should start to do so this very moment by focusing on what was in front of him instead of being bogged down by the past.
The two of them knelt down together, still holding each other’s hand as if they could not ever let go. Then, they looked up at the high priest, waiting for him to start the ceremony.
The high priest first turned to Jusha Lale. “Dan Jusha, which god is it that you follow?”
“The goddess En.” Jusha Lale did not need to think about this.
There were many gods in Alo, all of them with the same standing when looking at the whole kingdom. But in different places and among different kinds of people, different gods would hold greater meaning.
This was the case for En in Alo. The city of En had been named after her and this temple was mostly dedicated to her, despite the fact that everyone was welcome here no matter which god they followed. As somebody who had grown up in En, the city’s guardian deity might naturally have become the one he felt most drawn to. In any case, she was the one he wanted to witness his wedding.
The high priest nodded and turned to Susha Unhuor next. “Zhireng Susha, which god is it that you follow?”
“The god Ahu.”
Susha Unhuor had no doubts either. The blessing the zhireng received was one that came from all gods but by the time they had learned what it actually meant to be a zhireng and their powers were manifested in their weapon, they would choose one specific god to follow.
From that day on, their life would be in the hands of that gods. Whether it was granting the zhireng more powers in a time of need, taking away their powers if they overstepped what the god could tolerate, or even giving them a slim chance of survival where their death would otherwise have been a given, it was all dependent on that one decision they made.
For Susha Unhuor, that god had been Ahu, the god of justice. He was merciless in how he ensured the fairness of the world. To receive an additional blessing from him as a zhireng was almost impossible unless the other side had somehow gained an advantage the god deemed unfair.
But Susha Unhuor had always liked that style. He did not want to choose a god just based on the benefits he might receive. No, he wanted to choose based on who he could actually believe in. And Ahu had always been such a god to him.
Naturally, he would also choose this very same god to be the one to witness his wedding. In any case, Ahu wasn’t as stingy when it came to this type of blessing since it did not upset the order of justice.
The high priest nodded once again. “Very well. Then we may begin.”
In fact, the wedding ceremony in Alo was not a difficult one. It was merely that you promised each other to spend the rest of your lives together and have the gods witness that act and make offerings in the hope that they would give you their blessing. That was all. It could not be called fancy.
The high priest turned around to the altar and lit up the two candles that stood to each side, as well as the three incense sticks in the middle, waiting for the smoke to rise into the air. These represented the two people getting married, the two gods they had chosen, and the gate from this world to that of the gods.
When the first wisp of smoke rose up, the high priest folded his hands in front of his chest and closed his eyes. “As the su anqeng of the temple of En, I ask the gods to preside over the ceremony of the couple that has chosen them.” His voice seemed to reverberate in the hall as if it could truly leave this world and reach the next one, being heard by the gods themselves.
The smoke from the incense sticks curled slightly and the high priest opened his eyes, turning to the couple still kneeling behind him. “The two of you will have to swear allegiance to each other. I have to inform you that breaking your oath will mean that the blessing of the gods that you received for this marriage will be invalid and bad luck might lie in your future. If you go through with this and stay true to each other, you will have a good life in front of you though. Are you still willing?”
“Yes.” Neither Jusha Lale nor Susha Unhuor hesitated. They had already spoken about it. What was there to worry about?
The high priest nodded and then motioned for Jusha Lale to begin. “Address the gods, tell them your desire, and pledge your loyalty.”
Jusha Lale inclined his head. “I, Jusha Lale, dan of Alo, hereby call upon En, the goddess of hope, and Ahu, the god of justice, to bless my marriage to this man, so we may find happiness and lead Alo into a bright future.” He looked at the altar in front of him, his gaze decisive.
He indeed wanted to marry this man and find personal happiness. At the same time, he also wanted the best for his country. Marrying Susha Unhuor might bring some troubles but he believed that as long as they loved each other and as long as the gods were willing to bless them, those could be overcome somehow.
The high priest turned to Susha Unhuor. “Now, I ask you to state your identity, your desire, and to ask for the gods’ blessings.”
“I, Susha Unhuor, zhireng sworn to the god of justice, ask Ahu, the god of justice, and En, the goddess of hope, to bless my marriage with this man, so that in the future, we may be safe and be able to share our lives for a long time.”
He slightly turned his head, looking at Jusha Lale. He could ask for happiness but considering who he was, he found it more appropriate to ask the gods to keep them safe so that his vocation would not make Jusha Lale become a widower early on. That was a thought he couldn’t bear.
Jusha Lale also turned to glance at him, his lips curving up into a smile. He could imagine what was going through his almost-husband’s head. If he could, he would have said something but he did not want to disturb the ceremony so he kept quiet and just hoped that his gaze would be able to communicate to Susha Unhuor what he meant instead.
Meanwhile, the high priest turned back to the altar as if he had not seen their gazes at all. “The two lovers have spoken. May the gods grant their wishes.” Turning back, he looked from Jusha Lale to Susha Unhuor and then motioned at the altar. “You may present your offerings to the gods.” With that, he stepped aside and waited.
Jusha Lale and Susha Unhuor got up and stepped in front of the altar, still holding each other by the hand. They had not brought anything with them but for the ceremony, it was enough to promise something. Over the next year, this promise would have to be fulfilled to count.
If given in full or even being surpassed, it was said to reflect how much you cared about his marriage that you had committed to that day. If you failed to provide what you had offered, it was said to anger the gods and in the worst case, make them retract the blessing they had given. Thus, it was important to never promise too much. Promising too little might make the gods feel that you did not deem this wedding as that important though. So one had to consider carefully.
Both of them thought for a moment. As the king and as a zhireng, there were things that they could offer that others had no chance to give. But at the same time, this was a private issue and the question of whether they should actually use their official positions for this was difficult to answer.
Jusha Lale was the first one to speak up. “I was born as the prince of this country. I have become the king of this country. Speaking of possessions, I am able to give more than most. But I doubt it would show my sincerity no matter how much I gave. What I have has come from the citizens of my country and is meant to be given back to them. For my wedding and the following marriage, I should give something from myself though.
“I believe that the goddess of En, as the guardian deity of En, would be happiest with seeing me be a good king to my people and give them hope after the ordeal they have just suffered through. As such, let me make a gesture to the common folk instead.
“Over the period of this year, I will choose a region of Alo and see what it is that they will need the most. I will give to the poorest people there that have not been able to be blessed in the hope that the blessing we receive from the gods, will be able to also bless them.”
He turned to look at Susha Unhuor who nodded faintly. It was an offering that was not directly to the goddess but since this was the country whose capital city she had chosen to guard over, it might still please her. Furthermore, this was something that Jusha Lale would likely be able to provide. On the other hand, it was a bit risky. If a disaster happened sometime in the following year, it might be difficult to keep his promise. But what else could he do? He could only try his best.
Susha Unhuor turned back to the altar, keeping quiet for a moment while he pondered. “I was blessed as a zhireng. In En, I do not have an actual status so far. Neither do I hold many worldly possessions. And I have already sworn in the name of Ahu that I will be fighting the demons and the encroaching darkness until I am unable to do so. As such, I do not know what else there is to give for me.”
This was not wrong. He had nothing to his name other than the weapon he used as a zhireng. And here in Alo, he was nothing but that: a zhireng. But his task was already being done in the name of the zhireng. He couldn’t use that as the offering for their wedding or it would come off as insincere. He could only try to come up with something else.
“Since I do not have anything, I can only give my time and effort. First of all, I will follow my spouse to help carry out his plan. Then, since our home is going to be En, I will try and help the people here without asking for anything in return.”
Jusha Lale turned to look at him, a bit worried about what he had just promised. Helping him might mean that he would spend quite a bit of time outside of En. On the other hand, what he had promised was also to help the people of the city. This meant that he would need to spend some time here and find something he could do. Otherwise, would his offering really count as being fulfilled? It was hard to say. But still, if the offering was too simple, the gods also wouldn’t accept it and Susha Unhuor’s options were really limited.
Considering that, he finally nodded and the two of them fell quiet, having finished this part of the ceremony as well. They looked at the incense sticks and the smoke that still curled faintly in the air, filling the hall with their heavy scent.
The high priest stepped forward again, turning to the altar once more. “May the gods accept these offerings. From now on, these two people will be joined in marriage, bound together for eternity.” He closed his eyes, adding a silent prayer of his own.
This young king was doing his best for En and Alo. And zhireng Susha had shown that he also cared for the people. Having a couple like them as the one reigning was good. It was a pity they could not have a child but if there were a few decades of prosperity thanks to them, then whoever Jusha Lale chose as his heir later on would be able to continue from a strong point. And with the knowledge of the zhireng that might be passed down, the encroaching darkness might also be kept at bay.
He or rather they really were the hope of their country. Maybe the goddess of hope would see this and aid them in what they wanted to do, allowing Alo to truly enter an era of peace and prosperity. Surely, it would be for the betterment of all the people’s lives from the poorest person to the one most fortunate.
Finally, the high priest opened his eyes, looked at the items on the altar once again before he turned around, and nodded at the two men. “I will leave the two of you here alone in case there is something else you have to say to the gods.” He smiled faintly and then left, quietly closing the door behind him.
Jusha Lale and Susha Unhuor turned to each other, still keeping silent. They … were actually married now. After just having known each other for a bit over half a year and having proposed marriage today, it had already been done. When thinking about it, they didn’t quite know what to say.
Susha Unhuor finally grabbed his husband’s other hand as well, smiling faintly. “There is nothing else that I have to say. I’m content being with you. And I will continue to do so. I will not regret this decision.”
Jusha Lale looked down at their hands, smiling as well. “From the moment you made the decision and told me that you would stay and had even found a task for yourself, I was sure that you would not. You are not that kind of indecisive man.” He looked up again, his expression brightening. “From now on, we are not just our own, we are also each other’s. I hope that no matter whether it is with the blessing of the gods or without, the two of us will be able to go forward together, and weather whatever it is that lies in front of us. So that we will never come to regret this day.”
“I’m sure that we won’t.”
The two of them continued to look at each other for a moment and then turned to the altar, inclining their heads before they turned around and left.
Going back to Jusha Lale’s new chambers, they closed the door behind them and then turned toward each other again. There was a hint of awkwardness about them when they looked into each other’s eyes.
Finally, it was Susha Unhuor that cleared his throat. “I guess the customs would dictate to have our wedding night now, wouldn’t they?”
By now, it had already turned quite late and might indeed not be too early to start to prepare for the wedding night. But with how the two of them thought about these things, it really was difficult to even imagine.
Jusha Lale didn’t say anything for a while and then shook his head. “I do not think it is written that it is necessary. And remember what the high priest just said? Being willing to marry and having the gods as witnesses is enough. We fulfilled these two parts. What need is there for more? If you want a wedding night, let’s just go and watch the stars. We can have a conversation like we always did. I think that is more important to the two of us. Wouldn’t you say so?”
Susha Unhuor nodded. “The wedding is not what makes a couple. I guess in a sense, over the past half a year, we have already come to be in this kind of relationship. We just needed until today to make it clear to ourselves. To actually find the courage to admit to it in front of the gods. Very well, how things began is also how they should continue.”
Jusha Lale nodded and pulled at his hand, leading Susha Unhuor outside. “These are true words. Just that … I could do without having to deal with a demon.”
Susha Unhuor laughed at that and then reached over, putting an arm around Jusha Lale’s shoulders. “I can also do without a demon. Right now, they should not be important. We won’t have to think about them for quite some time I hope. And when we do need to do so again, we will also be able to deal with that. For now, only the two of us are important.”
Jusha Lale nodded and leaned over, putting his head against Susha Unhuor’s shoulder. “Yes, this night — no matter how we spend it — is only about us.”