14 A Sacrifice or a Punishment
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The two of them went back to get their horses and then made their way over to the house where they had stayed before. Susha Unhuor didn’t speak up immediately but he followed Jusha Lale up to the room that had been prepared.

The dan soon noticed that something was up. He raised his brows, wondering what this might be about. Was there something about the fight with the demon that Susha Unhuor hadn’t told him yet? He couldn’t help but feel worried at that thought. He motioned over to the table and went to ask one of the servants for some tea before he went and sat down himself. "Zhireng Susha looks as if he wanted to say something."

Susha Unhuor couldn’t help but smile. Even though it had only been a few weeks, Jusha Lale actually knew him quite well already. "The dan is actually able to see that at a glance. Well, I will cut straight to the chase then. Minister Agur just mentioned that he blames me for telling you the truth. So I reckon you’ve already found out." He didn’t bother to go into more detail. In any case, the dan had to know what this was about. There was no way he wouldn’t.

A hint of a guilty conscience flashed in Jusha Lale’s eyes before he lowered his head to cover his expression. His hands clenched into fists inside his sleeves, hidden from Susha Unhuor’s view by the table. Since he considered this man a friend, he should not have lied to him. But on the other hand, he suddenly felt sick to his stomach when he heard the zhireng’s words.

The truth … It was ugly. Too ugly for him to bear. Originally, he had thought that it would be nice to talk about it with Susha Unhuor since he already knew anyway but now that the zhireng had actually brought it up, his feelings were different. He hardly had the words to describe it but inside, he felt a deep aversion as if saying any of this out loud would change something that he wasn’t sure should be changed. The fear bubbled up in his heart and his throat constricted. He had to take a shallow breath to calm down at least a little and even then, he tried to deflect for at least a little while. "Well, I cannot deny it after you’ve been asked by the minister himself. Let’s wait until the tea is here. After that, I can tell you whatever you would like to know."

Susha Unhuor nodded. He could imagine that Jusha Lale wouldn’t want to talk about it in front of others. This wasn’t something others should know about if it could be helped at all. If they started and then were interrupted, it wouldn’t be good. Thus, waiting for a few more moments would be good. At the very least, they would not need to worry about being overheard. Surely, that should allow Jusha Lale to relax more and have an honest conversation.

They didn’t need to wait for long. The servant hurried in, put down the tray with the teapot and cups, and even poured the tea for them before he excused himself and left.

Jusha Lale pulled over the cup and then nodded again, watching the steam that was wafting up into the air. He knew he couldn’t push it off any further. He still didn’t feel well at the thought but since things had come to this, he just had to go ahead. In any case, he owed this man. Giving him an answer when he wanted to know something — especially something he had been involved in — was really the least he could do.

Persuading himself like this, he once again admitted to it, this time even explaining his thoughts behind his actions. "It is true. I … went back to the city as you told me. I just didn’t go to wait." He paused, not quite sure how to make clear to Susha Unhuor why he had acted the way he did. Where was he to begin?

"To be honest, when we met at the pavilion after you had spoken to Agur Suhi, I already realized that something was off. But you obviously didn’t want to tell me the truth and at that moment, I did not feel like I should pry. In any case, we were about to head into the capital and you would have to confront the demon as soon as we had consulted with the high priest. I felt … that it really wasn’t the right time to be willful and badger you for an honest answer." He looked up, his gaze hovering between being apologetic and decisive.

Susha Unhuor smiled faintly. To think the dan had taken his situation into consideration like that … He actually felt quite happy about it. "So you held back but you still wanted to know."

Jusha Lale hesitated for a moment but finally nodded. "Yes. I couldn’t help but feel that if you did not want to tell me the truth, it had to be grave. And I felt that I would rather be in the know than to stay muddleheaded."

He sighed deeply, his expression turning thoughtful. "I don’t know if you can understand this but the day it happened, I felt that part of this was my own fault. If I had been more perceptive, if I had seen whatever clues there were, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe there would not be a demon, maybe my people wouldn’t have to suffer, maybe I wouldn’t have had to go on this journey."

He fell quiet again, his gaze turning depressed. Things could have been different. He wished they were different. But it was too late to change now and he just couldn’t help but question whether he could have done something at another time. Maybe there would have been a way to ensure that things did not come to this. So much could have been different.

"You are blaming yourself." It wasn’t a question. Much like Jusha Lale had been able to see that he wanted to talk, he was able to notice the subtle signs of the king’s self-blame.

Jusha Lale glanced up only to lower his head again almost immediately. "I have reason to, don’t I? After all, this whole situation is centered around me: My uncle’s obsession was tied to me, thus the demon’s appearance … and it was I who failed to see the signs and do something against it before it could happen. So my people’s distress is my fault.

"So yes, I do have a guilty conscience. Come to think of it, the decisions I made on this journey … they might’ve also been made out of that reason. I do indeed believe that as king, I have to put my people before my pride. But I probably also felt that not only did I need to do everything for my people but I also owed it to them. Because in the end, I could have prevented this if only I was a bit smarter, a bit more observant. What I did … it was likely less a noble sacrifice than it was my punishment for failing in my duties."

Yes, this was likely why he had gone ahead with what he had done. Back then, he had felt that he had let his people down and that he needed to make up for that. And with him having sought out almost all of the zhireng in Alo, he had feared that it might be his last chance to give in to what that man asked of him.

Now, he knew that he had been wrong. There had been another, a better chance. How great would it have been if back then, he had stood his ground and refused! He would not have needed to demean himself and still would have been able to save his people. Just why had he not believed in that?

Susha Unhuor immediately shook his head, not in the least on board with the dan’s interpretation. "What that zhireng did to you is despicable and not something you deserved at all. He took advantage of you and you should never see it in another light. There is no punishment involved. There is no punishment necessary either.

"Your uncle hid his feelings quite well. Could you have noticed them? Maybe. But you didn’t spend that much time with him either so your chances of actually discovering what was up were minuscule. If you want to think that you should have been able to spot those small signs in that short amount of time, then what about others?

"His wife didn’t notice that there was somebody he actually thought about at the side despite spending several hours a day and the whole night with him. Shouldn’t she have realized that his thoughts weren’t always there with her? That maybe his interest in her waned while his interest in you became unbearable?

"And what about his children? They grew up in his household. He probably spent hours educating them, playing with them, guiding them through life. Surely, he should have been closer to his own children than he was to his nephew. But how come his nephew should then be able to spot his vile thoughts if even his children cannot?

"And then there would be his servants. Some of them served his family even before he was born, didn’t they? They saw him grow up. They probably saw his first crush play out, how he fell in love with his wife, and finally married her. How come they didn’t realize he had once again fallen in love with another person?

"Even his best friend who has probably spent the most time with him since they grew up together, worked together, and still spent time together privately, was unable to see anything until he stumbled upon a situation that really couldn’t be explained away anymore. What about those people? Should they all feel like they did something wrong? Should they all be punished in some way for not realizing it?"

Being asked like this, Jusha Lale sighed. "What am I supposed to say? I can’t blame any of them. Blaming myself is probably easier in comparison." He shook his head at himself and then picked up the cup, taking a sip. "It is not that I don’t know what you mean. When I think about it logically, then I also know that it is true.

"I always did my best since my father died and I had to accede to the throne. I tried to be the best possible king for Alo. I learned as much as I could, I tried to be hard when I had to and soft when I could be. Surely, I made some mistakes. It was inevitable with how sudden everything happened. But for the most part, I probably did well. At the very least, after the first year or two, people stopped arguing for me to step aside and let somebody else take over.

"Even when I look back now, there were no major oversights, no major mistakes that happened in the past eight years. Where I went wrong, there were others to help me out and make sure that the people of Alo never suffered.

"But even though I know this, it doesn’t mean that my heart is able to look at it in the same way. If I could, I would just turn back time and make sure that all of this can never happen. That my uncle would never … develop those feelings, that the demon would never be summoned, that the people of En wouldn’t need to be evacuated, and that I wouldn’t need to go on this journey. I just wish that nothing of this had ever happened." He furrowed his brows, his gaze darkening. He really regretted all of this. If he had known … things could have been different.

Jusha Lale closed his eyes and took a faint breath. There was nothing more to say and nothing that could be done. He would have to live with the knowledge that maybe things could have been different for the rest of his life.

Susha Unhuor reached over and carefully grabbed Jusha Lale’s hand inside his sleeve, forcing him to open his fist.

The dan opened his eyes in response, looking at him doubtfully. He did not understand what the zhireng was trying to do but he still trusted this man so he did not refuse his touch.

Seeing that he wasn’t immediately rejected, Susha Unhuor leaned closer, his gaze earnest. "I can imagine how you feel. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, things just happen and we can only deal with the aftermath.

"In any case, you have done what you could. More than you probably should have. Actually, you’re the person in this whole thing that I feel the most sorry for. It must’ve been hard finding out what your uncle felt deep down despite the fact that you trusted him so much. It must have been even harder to find out that you did something that you thought was worth it only to realize that you had been lied to.

"I can imagine that this will leave scars." He looked at him, not quite sure how to continue. He probably didn’t know him well since they had only met a few weeks ago but he felt that he actually did. Maybe this was just an illusion based on the few similarities between them that they had discovered. Maybe it was also that he felt that he didn’t need to mince his words with Jusha Lale despite his status as the king of Alo. He didn’t quite know.

At this moment, he wasn’t sure what to say though. The dan was not in an easy situation. And there wasn’t much that could be done about this. What had happened, had already happened. It couldn’t be changed anymore. Jusha Lale could only learn to accept it and find a way to handle it going forward. As for how to achieve that … "Do you have somebody you can talk to?" He took back his hand and also picked up his cup but didn’t bother to actually drink. It was just that he had started to feel a little awkward. Reaching out to take his hand … that had been a bit presumptuous, hadn’t it?

Sometimes, he almost forgot that this person was the king of Alo. If his two guards had been here, Jusha Lale likely would have had to call them off again because they would have wanted to draw their weapons and try to hack him into pieces for disrespecting their beloved king.

Jusha Lale looked at him, a faint smile on his lips. "As long as zhireng Susha stays in the capital city, I probably do. After that though … I’m not quite sure. As the king, it is never easy. There are Shunche and Chomong who know what happened but I can’t speak frankly with them. Chomong will say what he thinks I will want to hear and Shunche will probably start cursing. If he ever saw that man again, he would probably draw his sword and behead him before I can ask him not to. He can be a little rash."

Susha Unhuor laughed. "I noticed. Anyway, it’s not easy for you."

Jusha Lale shook his head. "Things aren’t easy for anyone. We just had a bad year. The next one might be better. I just wish that I didn’t have to lose part of my family for this. But then again, if I had found out about my uncle’s thoughts, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay around him anyway. Knowing it now … I actually shudder at the thought of what could have happened."

Susha Unhuor gave him another long look. His mouth felt a little dry but he finally gulped and exhaled slowly. "Alright." It seemed it was time for him to make a decision. Or, no, he had already made his decision. Now, he just needed to go ahead with it. He put down his cup and folded his hands on the table, looking at them so he wouldn’t have to see Jusha Lale’s expression. "Originally, I didn’t want to say anything because it would require telling you about the actual reason behind the demon’s summoning was but since you already know about that …" He trailed off, feeling that it was self-explainable.

Jusha Lale looked up, slightly raising his brows. "Is there more to know? Ah, I am not even sure if I still want to hear it. It would be so nice not to get any further surprises. I think there were more than enough in the last few days."

Susha Unhuor shook his head, still not daring to look at him. "It isn’t a bad surprise." He still felt nervous bringing it up though. He couldn’t even explain to himself why. Maybe because he feared Jusha Lale would ask about details and he would have to admit to what he saw in the palace? But, well, he couldn’t keep things to himself just because of that. Obviously, Jusha Lale could use this information if it would make him feel better even just a little. He was down enough, after all. "Do you remember how the high priest mentioned that your uncle didn’t seem quite stable on his legs when he came to the temple that day?"

Jusha Lale nodded. "Yes, what about that?"

Susha Unhuor finally looked up again even though he still didn’t dare to look directly at the dan’s eyes. "When I heard that, I felt that something was strange about it. But I couldn’t really put my finger on it so I decided not to follow the thought any further. In any case, fighting the demon was a pressing matter and I did not want to get sidetracked any further.

"When I went to the palace though, I found some more clues. It seems that while your uncle did indeed have these kinds of feelings for you, he never intended to act on them. He knew that that was a line he couldn’t cross.

"That day in the temple, he was under the demon’s control. But he knew that what the demon had ordered him to do was wrong. So he did whatever he could to fight against that control. That is why he was walking like that. There were two forces controlling his body, both telling him to do something different. In the end, you could say that your uncle won. Stumbling into the brazier probably wasn’t an accident either. He seems to have done that deliberately. It was a choice he made."

Jusha Lale stared at him. His lips opened for a moment before closing again. For a moment, he wondered if Susha Unhuor might just be saying this to console him. To make him think that things were actually better than he believed. A sweet white lie so he would be able to find some closure at least. But then, thinking back, he felt like there might be some truth to it.

That day, he had wondered what was up. He hadn’t stopped to think or ask though since they had still been following the steps of the ritual and would have needed a few more minutes before they could finish it. He had wanted to wait until they were done before going over and making sure his uncle was alright. But at that time, his uncle had already walked into the brazier. "The fire burning there is said to be the eternal fire of hope that the goddess En ignited."

Susha Unhuor nodded. "Just like the bodies and weapons of the zhireng, it carries a hint of its guardian god’s powers. It would’ve been able to destroy the demon."

"Then why didn’t it? The demon was still there afterward. Since he sacrificed himself, why didn’t he succeed?" Jusha Lale’s expression turned complicated. He was still grappling with the revelation about his uncle’s feelings for him but that didn’t mean that he wished him harm. If his uncle could still live, he happily would have welcomed him back. Maybe it would have been better if they didn’t see each other anymore but at least he would have known that his uncle led a happy life somewhere else. That would have been good, wouldn’t it?

So why … why now that he knew his uncle hadn’t wanted to harm him did he also need to find out that his efforts had been in vain? Why could a good deed not be rewarded? Why could his uncle’s idea not have vanquished the demon already and spared everyone else from suffering? Why had his sacrifice not been able to erase his previous wrongdoings?

Susha Unhuor sighed and finally picked the tea up again to drink. "The problem is that it was the wrong kind of demon. Depending on what type they are, the way they harm people will also differ. Some demons will directly possess a human’s body. In that case, they will be physically present as well. If it had been that kind of demon, your uncle would have succeeded in his endeavor and managed to kill it alongside him.

"Unfortunately, what he summoned was a demon called a rūn. This type doesn’t have a strong body but their spiritual powers are high. Thus, they use those to attack their victims. They will weave an illusion or use their energy to capture the person’s mind. That is likely what happened to your uncle. In other words, at the time he came to the temple, the demon could’ve been anywhere else in the palace or maybe even in the capital city depending on how strong it was and just controlled him from afar."

Jusha Lale furrowed his brows. "In that case, the demon actually could have evacuated together with everyone else, couldn’t it?" Thinking of that, a feeling of dread spread in his body. He had thought that if he led everyone away, they would be safe. Now though, he realized that he had thought too beautifully. The demon could’ve mixed into the crowd of people and just followed them.

Susha Unhuor hesitated for a moment but finally nodded. In any case, he had already said so much. Why not tell him the rest of it? "It is true. Worse than that: The rūn excel in mimicking people’s appearances as well. This means that it could’ve killed somebody and then just shaped a body that looked the same. If the behavior didn’t change too much, nobody would have noticed until it was too late."

Jusha Lale gulped. "How … How good are they at doing that? Surely … surely, they shouldn’t do too well? They don’t know the people after all, do they?"

Susha Unhuor felt a bit bad that he didn’t have better news once again. "Unfortunately, they are indeed quite good at doing this kind of thing. The rūn are demons of desire and desires can tell a lot about a person. After all, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are tied to the identity of the person that has them and often enough to other people as well.

"Just think of your uncle: His desire would show the demon his current life with his wife and children, as well as the way he is related to you through his older sister and his position in the military, while putting a spotlight on your identity. The demon could have used that to its advantage and taken on his identity if it wasn’t for the fact that he died in front of your and the high priest’s eyes.

"It is the same with others: They draw upon the innermost wishes and desires of a person, learn about them, and then dispose of them to use their identity to cause further havoc and gain strength. That is one of the reasons why it is so troublesome to vanquish them. It might take time before people notice and by then, the demon might be stronger and more difficult to defeat."

Jusha Lale held his head. He felt more than ever that being young was a disadvantage. No, not necessarily being young but being inexperienced was. There were too many things that he did not know about. He had actually made such a big mistake. So much for praising himself for not committing major mistakes in the past eight years. It seemed that he just hadn’t known about them so far.

Thinking for a moment, he looked up at Susha Unhuor again. "Is there any chance that the demon could’ve mixed into the people of the capital city already? I mean another one maybe? After all, we only found out about the one that my uncle summoned because of the decay that suddenly set in. If not for that, we wouldn’t have been aware at all."

Susha Unhuor shook his head. "Demons aren’t good at staying low key. If one had been summoned, it might keep its head down for a while, especially if it was a rūn, but it wouldn’t for long. They thrive off different things but they are all connected to humans. The human heart, to be precise. Without disturbing the people around them, the demons can’t grow stronger. In fact, if they don’t go ahead and try to disrupt the peace of the people around them, they would even grow weaker and finally die.

"In a sense, they live just like humans who will hunt animals to be able to eat their meat or have to harvest crops. We can’t live without that. And the demons can’t live without harming us humans when they are in our world. It is a different thing when they are among themselves which is why it’s not good to summon them. If everybody stayed in their world, then no harm would be done."

"Well, at least that means that so far, there shouldn’t be another demon. That’s good enough. In the future, I guess I will have to be more careful when making decisions."

Susha Unhuor shook his head. "I think you already were. Considering the circumstances and the lack of information, you made the best decisions that you could. Your people are safe. Your kingdom is safe. If not for what you did, I’m afraid that En and maybe Alo already would have fallen."

Jusha Lale smiled faintly. "Thank you. I’m not quite sure if it really is as you say but hearing your words does make me feel a bit better. I hope that in the future, we will never get into such a situation again."

Susha Unhuor smiled and put down his cup. "Who doesn’t? In any case, Minister Agur was right. You worked hard. You should probably rest up a bit over the next few days. Next week, things will start to look better again. You’ll be able to go back to your everyday life. All of this … while you certainly won’t forget it, it will become a faint memory in the future. You’re strong. And you know what is important. I’m sure that with some time, you will be able to find back your sense of normalcy."

Jusha Lale nodded faintly. "Yes, I think that too. It might require quite some work but we can come back from this stronger than before." He turned the teacup between his fingers, his expression a little thoughtful. "So … what about you? Have you decided what you’re going to do?"

Susha Unhuor gave a hum. "Well, I haven’t really thought about it yet. Maybe I’ll return to the temple of Sundang. Although … I actually don’t feel like it anymore. When I went there back then, it was so that I could find myself again. I was a bit lost. But I feel that while I managed to calm down there, I did not actually find myself. I thought I did because there was nothing to distract me but there was also nothing keeping me going.

"It was like I existed outside of time and outside of this world. It might seem peaceful but, actually, I was just in some kind of rigor. Not here, not there, nothing. Now that I have emerged from that state and that place, I don’t think that that is what I want for my life.

"I don’t know where I want to go yet. I also don’t know what I want to do. I guess I will start doing what a zhireng should do again. If there’s a demon, I will go and help. I’ve seen that things are actually not as bad as I thought before." His smile turned a little brighter and even his eyes seemed to glitter when he looked at Jusha Lale. "In fact, I have to thank you for this. If not for the fact that you came by and asked me to help, if not for the things I’ve seen on this journey, I am afraid I would not have arrived at this realization. I probably would’ve wasted the rest of my life."

Jusha Lale smiled as well. "I’m happy if I could be of help but … I’m sure that even if I hadn’t come, you would’ve been able to figure it out on your own. I believe in you."

"You believe more in myself than I do then. I think I needed some kind of wake-up call. Maybe I needed to see a certain type of person. In any case, this has indeed helped me. As for the future … well, I’ll take this week to think about it. Maybe I’ll be able to come up with something."

Jusha Lale nodded and the two of them fell quiet before they finally bid farewell and both went to rest.