A gong sounded in the distance, causing the visitor to turn to the window and listen for a moment. One strike, two, a third … The smoke from the incense continued to curl in the air, diffusing a calming scent in the room. Nonetheless, Jusha Lale’s heart beat rapidly, seeming to accelerate with each strike of the gong.
He gulped and picked up the plain cup of tea that had been put down in front of him. He took a sip but couldn’t taste a thing. Whether it was actual tea or mere water … he was unable to say for sure.
Putting the cup down, he looked up at the old monk opposite him. "Anqeng, pardon me for being rude, but when might I see zhireng Susha?" He had been waiting for several hours already but despite being led into this room and being served tea, nobody seemed to have gone and informed the man he wanted to meet of his coming, or at least he hadn’t been told what his answer had been. The longer he waited, the more he worried. He just couldn’t help himself. Not anymore.
The old monk looked at him with a kind smile. "Dear visitor, the zhireng has been a guest of our temple for a long time. When he came here, he was in search of a quiet place to find to himself and regain the balance he had lost. I wonder what your reason is to want to see him?"
Jusha Lale lowered his gaze to the liquid in his cup, making it swirl with a faint flick of his wrist, the corners of his mouth raising ever so slightly. "If I do not tell you, will zhireng Susha not be informed of my visit?"
The old monk shook his head, his eyes not straying from the young king’s face for a single moment. "No, he was already informed as soon as you asked to see him. While he wishes for quietness, we will not keep it from him if he is sought out."
"But he has refused to meet with me?" Jusha Lale’s smile became more pronounced but there was a hint of self-mocking contained in it. Yes, why had he thought this would turn out in any other way? He had asked so many of the zhireng but most had not deigned to even listen to him until the end. When you reached the lowest point, then why should anybody extend a hand to help you out of your plight? The world did not work like this. Not even those blessed by the gods would bother to look at you twice. At heart, they were still human after all. One should not expect more than what one would expect of other people from them. He should have known.
The old monk shook his head. "He has not. It is merely that zhireng Susha puts a lot of emphasis on his spiritual journey. He seemed to have been meditating when you arrived so most likely, he will come over as soon as he finishes."
"I see. It seems I can only continue to wait then." He picked up the cup of tea and lowered his head. He didn’t think a monk would lie to him but his hopes weren’t high anymore. He had seen too much since he had to leave the palace or maybe it was that he had not seen enough before he left his home. Maybe all of this never would have happened had he only been more perceptive. Now, there was nothing that could be done about it anymore though.
The guards waiting at the side of the room furrowed their brows, unhappy with what was happening. One of them lightly stepped forward and then knelt down beside Jusha Lale. "Dan, maybe we should turn back after all. There is no need for you to —"
"Speak no further." Jusha Lale put the cup down and shook his head. "There is nobody else that can still help us. We will wait until zhireng Susha is willing to see me, no matter if it takes a day, a week, or even a year." His eyelids lowered and his brows slightly furrowed. Anyway, what else were they supposed to do? There was no one else to ask. What other options did they have?
The guard frowned but still nodded and stepped back, not daring to contradict his king.
The room fell silent. The sound of the gong in the distance faded away. The shadows in the room turned longer, the golden shine of the sun slowly eclipsed by the approaching night. Jusha Lale closed his eyes, feeling uncomfortable in the darkness.
Finally, measured steps sounded outside. Jusha Lale raised his head, his eyes opening just in time for his gaze to meet that of a man clad in a simple gray robe. For a moment, their gazes held each other before the man turned away with disinterest and spoke to the old monk instead.
"Anqeng, you had me called over?"
The guards at the side clenched their hands into fists but did not dare to complain when even their king kept quiet at this slight.
The old monk smiled amicably and motioned at the man sitting opposite him. "Zhireng Susha, you have a guest. He has been waiting while you were meditating. I guess I should leave the two of you alone to speak." He did not introduce him and merely nodded at Jusha Lale before he got up, the young monk at the side coming forward to help him out of the room.
Jusha Lale continued to look at Susha Unhuor. He had heard of him but had never seen him before. To be honest, he was surprised. The man in front of him was tall and a little too muscular to fit their society’s beauty standards. He had a comely face though. It was one that showed off his maturity, the already entrenched lines, and little scars that told about his story enhancing the square shape. It was a face worth looking at.
The man sat down opposite him, his gaze also traveling over Jusha Lale’s figure before returning to his face. He stared at him for a moment before he turned to look away as if he couldn’t be bothered at all. "What do you want?"
Jusha Lale lowered his gaze as well, folding his hands at the edge of the table. "My name is Jusha Lale."
Susha Unhuor’s gaze flickered back to his face for a moment as if something was going through his head but he didn’t say anything and soon turned away again.
Jusha Lale fell quiet for a moment as well before he continued to explain. "A demon has appeared in the kingdom’s capital, terrorizing the people, and laying waste to the place. I have traveled through the whole country and called upon many heroes but none were able to stop it."
Susha Unhuor finally turned back to look at Jusha Lale for real this time. "And now you have come to ask me."
Jusha Lale inclined his head. "I have. The temple of Sundang is the last stop on my journey. I know zhireng Susha has retired several years ago but there is nobody else left to ask. You are Alo’s last hope. I wouldn’t have come to ask you otherwise. So would you be willing to at least listen to my explanation?"
Susha Unhuor’s brows furrowed together. While he had somewhat expected that answer, he wasn’t sure if he should believe all of it. He had seen too many kings lie in his life and while the name of Jusha Lale was a well-known one and one that spoke of his virtues rather than his vices, he did not dare to be careless. Accepting this would set a precedent, one he was not sure he wanted to establish. The life of a zhireng … it was one he wanted to leave behind after all. "What about Uing Ar Qou?"
"He was grievously injured just three months ago. While he is one of the few that would be willing to go, it is almost certain that he would lose his life if he did so. He has agreed to make the attempt though should nobody else volunteer."
Susha Unhuor’s expression darkened further. While he hadn’t seen him in a while, he considered Uing Ar Qou a friend. He wouldn’t want to hear of his death. "Anhong Unte?"
"He died four years ago, shortly after zhireng Susha went on his travels."
"How could this be?" Susha Unhuor got up and paced over to the window, looking out with a storm brewing in his eyes. It had not even been half a decade but it seemed the world outside had changed beyond recognition. His friends were hurt or even dead, the kingdom he had grown up in infested by darkness. He did not want to believe any of it.
Susha Unhuor turned around, his gaze sharp enough to make the other man quiet down. "If I go and ask the anqeng to verify, will they tell me the same as you?"
"You! How dare you question the dan?!" The guards stepped out immediately, unsheathing their weapons halfway.
Jusha Lale slightly turned his head, his brows furrowing in displeasure. "Shunche, Chomong, calm your temper. I am the one who is asking zhireng Susha to do us a favor. Naturally, he should be allowed to ask his questions."
"Yes, dan." The guards lowered their heads and sheathed their weapons again but their expressions still showed unwillingness. If only they had had the ability to fight against the demon and free their king of this worry themselves. But alas, they had not been blessed by the gods. They could only be mere guards, forced to watch from the sidelines as their king had to lower his head and lay down his dignity before these men and beg them to do their duty.
Jusha Lale turned to face the warrior again, his gaze still as mild as before as if he did not feel humiliated at all by the current situation. "I do not know what the anqeng would say if you went to ask them. But please, if it will make you trust more in my words, then go ahead and ask them. I will continue to wait here until you have sated your curiosity." He lowered his eyelids, looking at the cup of tea again that had long gone cold.
Susha Unhuor followed his gaze and finally walked back to the table, sitting back down with a stuffy feeling in his chest. He had only been told that a guest had arrived when he finished his meditation. Most likely, this man had been waiting for him for several hours already. Most people would be angry at that point, not to mention one of such high status. Even though he usually did not care for such things, he felt a little sorry. He cleared his throat, his gaze wandering back to the window. "What exactly happened?"
Jusha Lale lightly exhaled, a faint sliver of hope once again igniting in his heart. His expression was grave though when he thought back to the beginning. "It started in the palace. It was the beginning of winter when the first snow had just fallen. The ground was covered in a white blanket, the window sills glittering in the sun. We were preparing for the end of the year celebration and the servants had started to decorate the palace and the city of En.
"It was the time when the afternoon gives way to the evening. The golden ribbons glistened in the fading sunlight when suddenly, one of them turned black from one side to the other. The servant hanging it up screamed and scrambled away. None of them dared to approach it again.
"I asked the high priest of En for his opinion and he suggested that it might be a curse. He had the priests bless the ribbon in question and the darkness somewhat receded but you could still see a faint shadow. It was enough to calm the servants down for the time being though and the preparations for the celebration continued.
"Over the next week, there were small incidents of the same kind: Not just decorations but objects that had long been in the palace suddenly showed signs of turning black, even the floors and walls changed color in some spots.
"It had become obvious that this was worse than we had originally assumed. I invited the high priest once again and this time, he concluded that no one alive would be strong enough to cast a curse this strong. Thus, it became apparent that it had to be a demon at work."
Jusha Lale fell quiet for a moment, sorrow apparent between his brows. "In this situation, it did not seem safe to hold the year-end celebration. Unfortunately, there was also the problem of causing a panic among the people. Since there wasn’t much time, we could only call upon the priests from the surrounding temples, hoping that with the help of all of them, we would be able to at least slow the spreading of the darkness.
"In fact, it worked. After the priests’ prayers, the darkness had receded and on the last day before the festival, we could not find any traces of it spreading again. It seemed we had worried too much and the demon had retreated on its own, not wanting to persist with terrorizing a place that was consistently blessed by priests to work against it."
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly. In the past, this kind of approach had worked sometimes. But naturally, it couldn’t have done so in this case if the dan came to see him. "I gather something will have happened at the festival?" This would be the way of doing things that the demons preferred. After all, it would cause the most chaos.
Jusha Lale sighed and lowered his gaze, worry, and maybe a bit of self-reproach tinting his expression. "Yes, something happened. The high priest and I were holding the ceremony to worship the goddess En when a person stumbled into the hall, crashing into the brazier, and making the coals spill out. Some of the decorations caught on fire, almost setting the whole temple ablaze.
"We were able to flee and get all of the people waiting outside to safety but the ritual was interrupted, meaning bad luck for the following year for the whole kingdom and especially the capital city. With what transpired before, the people are worried." Jusha Lale looked back up, his gaze still solemn. "The zhireng can believe me that I would have preferred an easier solution than to seek out all the zhireng in the country to ask them for their help. But the problem is that even after gathering all the priests, after having them use their powers, the demon could not be defeated. I am afraid only a zhireng will be able to vanquish it."
"But none of the others were available."
Jusha Lale inclined his head. "That is how it happened."
Susha Unhuor took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled. He had never wanted to return. He actually liked the life at the temple of Sundang and would have preferred keeping things this way. It was simpler. And he really liked things to be kept simple. But if he refused, then En and maybe the whole kingdom of Alo would be lost. He couldn’t square that with his conscience. Still, before he decided, there were more things to talk about.
"A demon usually doesn’t appear just like that. They are driven to our side. Who was the person that stumbled into the hall?"
Jusha Lale lightly turned his head away, keeping quiet for a moment. "My maternal uncle." Once again, he hesitated but then still elaborated further. "He was the only one that lost his life that day. Upon examination, it was found that his body had also started to turn black, just like a strange pattern starting from the soles of his feet and the small of his back and then seemingly growing outward."
Susha Unhuor furrowed his brows. His maternal uncle … that wasn’t good but neither was it completely unexpected. Honestly, this was one of the reasons why he disliked his role as a zhireng. Fighting demons was one thing but the underlying troubles you would get embroiled in … he had seen too many of them. He did not want to add even a single more.
Unfortunately, since he was already listening to this he couldn’t just get up and leave now. He at least had to give an explanation. "I guess you will know why it was your uncle that day."
Jusha Lale nodded. "Yes, I do. A demon’s first victim will always be the person that called them unless there is an equivalent sacrifice and they were summoned to kill somebody. Then they will usually be their third victim."
Susha Unhuor nodded. "Indeed. Unless they figure out a way to send the demon back to where it came from or feed it more sacrifices but that would make the demon stronger in turn, making it even more difficult to get rid of it."
"Is there still a way to stop it?"
The warrior didn’t answer immediately. He just didn’t know what to say. Stopping a demon was never easy. If it was, there would be no need for the zhireng. In this specific case, things were made more difficult by the fact that they were far away from En. Even if he agreed, he could not take a closer look to determine what he needed to know so he couldn’t accurately judge the difficulty of dealing with this demon. Even when they traveled there and he was finally able to take a look, it might be too late already. After all, the demon could have grown already and might attack as soon as he appeared.
Yes, this situation was especially risky. He couldn’t say for sure that he’d be able to make it out alive or actually kill the demon. But as things stood, he couldn’t say no. Because if he did, then things would only get worse.
Susha Unhuor took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn’t make this decision lightly but with one option not available to him, there wasn’t much to decide, was there? He opened his eyes again and looked at the young dan in front of him. "Very well. I agree. I will come back to En with you and at least take a look."
Jusha Lale sighed with relief. "Thank you, zhireng. I know this is a great favor you are doing the kingdom. You … I will make sure you do not have to regret it."
Susha Unhuor merely smiled faintly. Such a grand-sounding promise … Unfortunately, it was an empty one. The only one who could make sure that there would be no regrets was he himself. Still, he wouldn’t say so out loud. After all, this was something normal people could not understand. Not even all of the zhireng understood this until the moment it was too late.
Meanwhile, Jusha Lale glanced at his guards. They looked unhappy but still inclined their heads, closed the windows, and then went outside to guard the door.
Susha Unhuor raised his brows, a sense of alarm making him tense. He had not taken his weapon with him considering where they were but he could see some objects that could be used as one should he have to defend himself.
Jusha Lale got up, went around the table, and slowly sat down next to Susha Unhuor again. He did not look at him and instead looked at his own hands that he had folded in his lap. There was a hint of sorrow between his brows but it disappeared when he raised his head and directly looked into the warrior’s eyes. "As things stand, I cannot offer you much of a reward. When we arrive back at En, everything in the palace might have been engulfed by darkness and been corroded. You can take whatever you desire from the things left but I can’t promise you that it will be much."
Susha Unhuor finally relaxed. "Is that what this is about?" Apparently, he had thought too much. He had feared an attack but this young dan was merely embarrassed by his lack of wealth and the resulting inability to reward the warrior he had asked for help, it seemed. Well, it was nothing he would concern himself with. He had not agreed for any reward that might be given. He had agreed for the sake of the people of Alo, his fellow citizens.
Jusha Lale inclined his head at the question. "That is what this is about. I know … This might seem like an empty promise. In fact, it might be one but I have no way to change that. I have … only one thing left I can give you."
Susha Unhuor raised his brows. "Are you afraid I would not follow you without a reward?"
Jusha Lale lowered his gaze again and finally nodded. "I cannot expect you to do this without gaining anything in return. For the time being …" He looked up again and then raised his hands, reaching out toward the warrior in front of him. There wasn’t the slightest hesitation when he cupped his cheeks and then leaned in, their lips touching.
Susha Unhuor was frozen stiff. The dan’s lips brushed his and then moved to his jaw while his hands traveled downward, trying to ignite a fire in his body. The zhireng’s brows twitched and he finally reached out himself, grabbing the king by his wrists.
"Ah." Jusha Lale winced and pulled back, winding his hands out of the warrior’s grip.
From outside, the sound of the guards shifting uncomfortably could be heard but they didn’t come in and stayed where they were, obviously having expected something like this.
Susha Unhuor glanced over and then turned back to the dan, his brows still furrowed. "There is no need."
"Is it because I am not a woman?"
Susha Unhuor was at a loss for words. This man … he did not look as if he enjoyed even the thought of pleasuring him. So why insist? He uncomfortably shifted away from him. "No."
"It is said that I am no less beautiful. Maybe … maybe the zhireng would enjoy himself after giving it a try. You can do to me whatever you desire. I will not complain, no matter what it is."
Susha Unhuor had to look away. The young king’s eyes were completely empty when he said those words, making him even more uncomfortable than he had already been. He took a deep breath and then got up. "Whether you are a man or a woman, beautiful or ugly, I still would not be interested. Since it is like this, why would you bother? You do not seem to be attracted to me either. Just leave it be." He brushed his clothes, feeling as if he could undo what had just happened, and then turned to the door. He stopped a few steps away from it and looked up at the ceiling. "Anyway, I do not need a reward. I will go and gather my things now. When I come back, we should leave for En. No time should be lost."
He didn’t wait for Jusha Lale’s response and just pushed open the door, hurrying past the two guards, and returning to his quarters. When he arrived, his mind was still in a mess.
This was the first time in many years that somebody has come onto him. And it was for sure the first time in his life that somebody had come onto him with an expression as if they were being led to the slaughter. He really did not understand this person called Jusha Lale.
Back at the waiting room, the two guards came in, kneeling down beside their king. Shunche reached out, carefully taking his hands, and looked at his wrists. "That zhireng really should have handled you more delicately."
Chomong gave him a deep look. "Don’t say such things. It’s already good enough that he didn’t do anything more. Dan … should we go and wait outside then?"
Jusha Lale sighed and nodded. "Yes, let us do that." Anyway, he was glad as well. This kind of humiliation … he certainly did not want to suffer it again.