Iirin meets the two gods that he is apparently destined to bond with and realizes that he really has no idea how to handle what will come next.
Between the moment when the carriage finally slowed to a stop and when its door opened with a muted snap, Iirin managed to come up with and discard nearly a dozen different scenarios where his introduction to the two Tals could go terribly.
Jolted out of his dark thoughts, Iirin found himself gaping up at the man that opened the door for him.
At the temple-orphanage, Iirin was the tallest inhabitant, and even when he did errands in the marketplace, he rarely saw anyone that approached his height in the bustling crowd. However, the man in front of him looked as if he almost could be several inches taller than Iirin if they stood side by side.
In addition to that stunning height, the man before him was striking, with curly dark green hair, warm brown eyes, and light brown skin several shades lighter than Iirin’s own complexion with an undertone of greenery flickering just underneath the surface.
He was also, Iirin realized when eyes met, not a regular demon.
Or even a demon at all.
Iirin had been expecting a servant to help him out of the carriage and introduce him to his future bonded, not one of the two gods themselves.
“Y-you’re him,” Iirin said, fighting against the initial instinctive urge that told him to climb out of the carriage and scurry away from the god before him. “I mean, you’re one of them.” He frowned, pausing as he realized something important. “No one ever told me your names.”
The man — god — before Iirin frowned. “No one? But we came to the temple-orphanage and spoke with the main caretaker after the seer told us that her messenger had reached you. You should have been told.”
Iirin shook his head.
“I tried asking before today, but Matron refused to tell me,” Iirin blurted out, shoulders slumping as he waited for a sharp response from the divinity standing before him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to.”
Movement off to the side caught Iirin’s eye. When he dared to glance over, his betrothed was there with one large hand stretched out towards him in a friendly gesture.
“You’ve done nothing to apologize for, Iirin,” the Tal murmured with a small smile tugging at the corners of his full mouth. “I am Tal Aten, a god of greenery and farming. It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Iirin.”
It wasn’t fair, Iirin thought to himself. It wasn’t far at all that the gentle smile on Aten’s face only served to make him look even more handsome. Iirin couldn’t bring himself to look away from that smile, catching himself nodding almost before he even registered the movement.
Wordlessly, Iirin took Aten’s hand, finally allowing the Tal to help him out of the carriage.
Aten’s skin was warm and his hand was rough with calluses. When he stroked his thumb over the back of Iirin’s hand, his smile widened at the gasp that Iirin couldn’t keep internalized.
Once they moved away from the carriage, Iirin couldn’t help but stare at the massive temple complex that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a massive complex with buildings and clusters of trees dotting the land around them. When Iirin squinted, he could even see a stretch of farmland near the back end of the compound.
“Do you like what you see?”
Aten’s voice reminded Iirin of honey. His grip on Iirin’s hand shifted from a gentle, guiding gesture to one that conveyed something stronger, more possessive. With Iirin standing on flat ground, Aten was nearly half a head taller than him and the god was far broader in the shoulders than Iirin would ever be.
“Y-yes,” he confessed with a belated nod of the head, not entirely sure whether he was talking about the temple or the god standing so close to him.
Aten’s slow smile caused a soft noise to escape Iirin’s lips, the sort of noise that he had never before heard himself make.
“Come,” Aten said in a warm but commanding tone, already striding towards the large building in front of them with Iirin’s left hand still held loosely in his right. “Tien has been waiting to see you. He’ll be unbearable if he doesn’t get to speak with you before the ceremony begins.”
Iirin nearly stumbled over thin air. “T-Tien,” he stuttered, the question coming out in fits and starts. “Who –“
Aten turned to face Iirin with a faint furrow forming between his brows.
“A fire spirit and my bonded,” he said before his lips curved with a rueful smile and he shook his head, already moving to correct himself. “Our bonded. It was his question that the seer answered and he’s been unbearable ever since.”
“Is that a good thing?” Iirin asked with trepidation heavy in his voice.
Aten’s eyes widened.
“Of course it is. He’s talked of nothing else but meeting you since the seer’s prophecy was made,” Aten said. “If not for ceremony, Tien would have probably whisked you away days ago.”
It just didn’t make sense, anyone wanting him so much that they would risk getting into trouble or causing a scandal. He bit his tongue though, choosing to stay silent as Aten led him into the big building.
The temple-orphanage wasn’t small. Nor was it particularly shabby when compared to other temples in the quarter, but it had nothing on the temple that stretched up over their heads. The main building in Aten and Tien’s shared temple was large and richly decorated, covered with beautiful works of art that Iirin couldn’t look away from when they walked past them.
“We’ll give you a proper tour after the bonding ceremony,” Aten offered when he caught Iirin staring longingly down one hallway that was lined with a mural that made it look like a forest pathway. “We didn’t have time to find out what sort of things you liked, but if there’s anything at all that you want to change, you have only to ask.”
Somehow, Iirin managed to bite back the disbelieving scoff that threatened to burst free from his mouth.
He wasn’t born yesterday.
Nothing could be so simple. But Iirin pretended to understand, nodding quickly before Aten could notice his hesitation and ask him questions (or worse, offer to help).
They stopped in front of a set of double doors that stretched high above their heads.
“Is this –” Iirin couldn’t make himself continue speaking, but Aten didn’t seem to notice his sudden silence.
Instead, Aten opened the doors without knocking, pushing them inward without so much as an announcement of his presence and pulling Iirin in after him.
If the hallways were sumptuous, then the room that they entered from the hallway was beautiful enough to make Iirin want to hide from the opulence.
In his threadbare clothes and too-small shoes, Iirin felt the role of outsider keenly. He wasn’t a Tal like his future bonded, nor was he even a noble. He was nothing, nothing more than a very lucky demon that had a seer change his entire life.
The reminder of his insignificance hurt.
Iirin squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to breathe through the anxiety that threatened to leave him breathless in a bad way.
Of course, the whimper that escaped despite Iirin’s attempts at calming himself was the one noise that Aten could not miss. He turned around at the first shaky catch of Iirin’s breath, hands flying up to cup Iirin’s trembling shoulders.
“Iirin?” Aten asked, peering at Iirin’s face with worry plain on his own. “What’s wrong? Speak to me, darling.”
The endearment only made things worse.
How anyone outside of Matah could use those words for someone like Iirin?
Iirin shook his head so quickly that he nearly injured himself in the process.
“N-no,” Iirin said in a hoarse murmur. “No – I’m –”
He didn’t know what he was saying no to, only that he couldn’t handle this. He couldn’t handle Aten being so close and so nice. Iirin was so caught up in his own fear and panic, that he barely registered Aten moving him towards a low couch close to the door until he was seated and the Tal sat down on his right side.
“Is this… normal?”
Another voice, not Aten’s, came from close by.
Before Iirin could move, the cushions on his left side dipped down as someone else sat beside them. Out of the corner of his eye, Iirin caught a glimpse of golden skin and flashing red eyes. He swallowed air in a nervous, noisy gulp.
“Are you Tien?” Iirin asked without turning to look the Tal beside him.
“Aten wouldn’t let me so close to you if I wasn’t,” Tien said. He touched the side of Iirin’s arm, then his face, urging him to shift and look at him. When Iirin finally dared to look at him, Tien’s eyes widened and the pale rim of red around his pupil darkened with something that made Iirin feel flushed.
“Oh,” Tien said in an appreciative murmur. “You are beautiful. I knew you would be, but to see you in person…” Tien trailed off and then leaned in until he was close enough that all Iirin could feel was the sweltering heat of his skin.
Over his shoulder, Iirin heard Aten caution Tien not to be so rash.
“I’m not being rash,” Tien said without looking away from Iirin’s mouth. “He’s as good as ours now. It’s allowed.” Then, without a warning, he leaned in with his lips parted and did the last thing that Iirin expected.
Tien kissed Iirin, a chaste press of their lips together that barely lasted longer than the space of several heartbeats. He pulled away slowly, at first looking satisfied with himself before he realized that Iirin wasn’t reacting the way that he’d like.
“You didn’t like that?” Tien asked. His dark eyebrows furrow as he frowned.
Iirin didn’t respond.
At least, not at first.
Eventually, he managed to find the words that he wanted.
“You kissed me.” Iirin spat out in an accusatory tone.
Tien blinks. “Well, of course I did,” he said, blinking at Iirin.
Tien frowned. “What do you mean, ‘why’?”
Aten interrupted before Iirin could answer, touching Iirin’s shoulder in order to get his attention.
“You’ve never been kissed before have you?” Aten asked.
Now there’s a question that Iirin really didn’t want to answer. He closed his eyes and tried to steel his nerves before answering with a shaky nod of his head.
“Y-you’re right,” Iirin stammers. “I-I’ve never been kissed before or anything like that.”
Tien’s frown only strengthened. “Why not?”
Iirin refused to answer and instead, he rushed to change the subject.
“I’d like to start the purification ritual now,” he said quickly, avoiding the inquisitive expressions on Tien and Aten’s faces as his hands and his eyes dropped to his lap.
“Perhaps we should talk first,” Aten offered. “If something is bothering you about this, we should know how to help before the Bonding ceremony.”
Iirin was expecting to be fried on the spot for the way that he jerked back from Aten and scowled at the god in front of him. When no such punishment happened, Iirin forced himself to try again. After all, the last thing that Iirin wanted was to have to talk about himself in front of two gods that probably wouldn’t know what it was like to be thought a freak for something that they couldn’t control.
“Please, I mean. I don’t want to talk. Not right now.”
Thankfully, neither Tien nor Aten pressed him for more information even though they were well within their rights to do so.
Aten rose to his feet and then offered Iirin a helping hand up. “I’ll take you to the purification chambers. Two of our servants will help you through the process and then dress you.”
“And then we’ll do the bonding ceremony?”
Aten nodded. “Yes. One of the Three will be here shortly to preside over the ceremony.”
What kind of life do they live where it isn’t strange to have one of the pillars of the Anatean pantheon coming by to handle the process of bringing them together for their bonding? These were the gods that Iirin saw from afar if he was lucky (or close up if he was really unlucky). And Tals Aten and Tien were kin to them.
Iirin managed a nod that was just shy of frantic. “Th-thank you, Tal –”
“No honorifics,” Tien called out from where he still sat half sprawled cross the couch. “You’re ours now. That means you get to take liberties.”
The only thing truly different about bathing in the temple-orphanage and the purification process in a downstairs room of the main building in the temple was the presence of other people. Tien and Aten had each sent one of their priestesses to help with the ritual.
The priestesses scrubbed Iirin’s skin within an inch of his life, paying special attention to the markings that covered his skin as if they could simply erase them simply by bathing him hard enough. When their plan didn’t work, the two women huffed with displeasure and moved on to other things.
Namely, Iirin’s long white hair.
“Should we cut it?” Tien’s priestess asked Aten’s priestess over Iirin’s head. “Or would the Tals prefer it braided.” They spoke the common tongue easily enough and Iirin bristled at the fact that he was being all but ignored by the two women.
“Excuse me,” Iirin said. He had to repeat himself twice before either woman would look at him. “You’re not cutting my hair and you’re not braiding it. Let it stay loose. Please.”
The please was an afterthought, tacked on at the last minute when Aten’s green-eyed priestess scowled at him.
The two women shared an indecipherable look over Iirin’s head.
“Fine,” Tien’s priestess muttered darkly. “But you will need to have it cut at some point.”
Iirin shook his head, frowning.
“I had my head shaved every year until I hit my majority,” he says with a sharp note to his voice. “Do you know how long it took me to grow this out? I don’t care if the Tals don’t like it; I’m not cutting my hair.”
After that, the purification ritual continued in silence, neither woman lingering or looking at Iirin for any longer than they absolutely had to. They bathed him, dried him, and then dressed him in clothes far finer than anything that Iirin had worn before.
At first glance, the simple shirt and trousers were too plain for two gods’ chosen partner to wear. They were a plain grayish purple in color, closer to what would have been Iirin’s house colors had he a house of his own than the colors of the gods that were awaiting him. But when Iirin touched the clothes, he felt the intricate texture of the fabric sliding sleek underneath his fingertips.
Only a pointed cough from the direction of the doors kept Iirin from losing himself in the feel of that fine fabric.
Some part of Iirin felt as if he was walking to his doom.
It was only a bonding ceremony of course, nothing that didn’t happen every single day in and out of the god quarter, but things like that didn’t happen to Iirin. He was half convinced that he’d blink and wake up back in his narrow bed up in the attic, waiting for Matron to burst in and demand that he complete more chores in order to earn his keep.
Iirin followed behind the silent priestesses, staring down at his bare feet as they passed over plush carpet. He feared looking up. He feared that he would come to the bonding ceremony and Tien and Aten would realize that they could do better than an undernourished demon that hadn’t even had his first rut yet.
When the door to the main room in the temple opened, Iirin had to dig his nails into his palms in order to keep from running away. The pain distracted him, the bite of his nails reminding him that he had to do this.
That if he didn’t, he was out of options.
Not a perfect way to start one’s lifelong bonding to two immortals, but Iirin wasn’t sure that anything could keep him from panicking.
The main room of Tals Tien and Aten’s joint temple was packed to the brim with people of all kinds. Iirin didn’t recognize most of them beyond something in the back of his head that identified them as gods to his senses.
He recognized Tirenni though, one of the gods responsible for the temple-orphanage’s upkeep.
The youngest and smallest member of the Three with her deep purple skin and bright pink eyes was the only god that Iirin could say that he actually knew. She was kind to him more often than not and out of all the gods that used his services as a messenger, she was the one that had her priests pay him the most.
Without so much as a “by your leave”, Tirenni pushed through the crowd that separated her from Iirin. No one dared complain about one of the most powerful beings in existence stepping over their feet or pressing predictably sticky fingers into their robes.
“Tirenni,” Iirin said, his voice embarrassingly high with tension. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” He dipped his knees before he moved to drop into a deep bow to show the proper amount of respect, but a deceptively strong hand on his shoulder stopped him before he could complete the bow.
“You’re joining our family now,” Tirenni said, her soft voice kinder than Iirin had expected. “We don’t bow to family.” She urged him to rise to his full though he towered over her slight frame and then hugged him tight about the waist.
Only a few inches taller than Matah, Tirenni nonetheless had the strength of the first gods. She was older than nearly every other being in the room with them and yet she was still so much like a child.
Iirin blinked away the tears that sprung up in his eyes. “Tirenni, why –”
“You have made offerings to me every single year since you were old enough to come to the temple on your own,” Tirenni said, her voice strengthening until it was loud enough to ring off of the high ceiling. “You prayed to me every time you were hurting or in need of a friend. Honestly, if the seer hadn’t foretold of your needed presence in Aten and Tien’s hearts, I would have had one of my brothers snatch you up ages ago.”
Tirenni hugged him once more and then stepped back, smiling up at him with all of her very sharp teeth on display.
“I shouldn’t keep you,” she mused. “Tien might try to set me on fire again if he thought that I was trying to steal you away.”
Iirin nodded without thinking, mouth slack with confusion. He didn’t resist further, didn’t look back as the two priestesses took his hands and presented him to the Tals as if he was a bearer on their wedding night.
The sight of the two gods in their formal clothes left Iirin’s mouth dry and his eyes bugging out from shock. Somehow, they looked even more attractive than they did before.
Tien was dressed in gold and crimson robes that were covered in extensive embroidery. His robes also had a jeweled salamander settled on the front of his outfit. As Iirin stared unthinking, the salamander blinked and scuttled up to perch on Tien’s shoulder.
Aten’s own outfit was far more understated, but no less attractive. He was dressed in clothes similar to Iirin’s own, but with intricate designs of his trade at the sleeves and collar of his shirt.
“Y-you look –” Iirin couldn’t even manage to finish that simple sentence. Not with them standing in front of him and smiling at him as though they had never seen anything more wondrous in their lengthy lives.
Tien grinned, starting forward.
Standing, he was of a height with Iirin and all of his glossy black hair was pulled back into a braid that left his face bare and beautiful in its sharpness. He took Iirin’s hands in his, squeezing them gently before he leaned in and brushed a quick peck of a kiss over one corner of Iirin’s mouth.
When he stepped back, Aten moved in to do the same.
“You look stunning,” Aten murmured after they were no longer touching. “Are you — are you well?”
Iirin could read between those lines with little help. Aten wanted to know if he was alright with this — with them.
“I — I think so,” Iirin eventually stammered. It wasn’t a lie. Not quite. He offered them a smile afterwards though, because it felt like the right thing to do. He wasn’t sure that this would work, that they would want him after they saw him, but he couldn’t back out now. “I’m ready now.”
The bonding ceremony was supposed to be like a marriage ceremony, but more intimate. Iirin had never seen one of either ceremony before, none of the foundlings were ever invited when one of their former fellow orphans was bonded, but he had read enough books on the subject.
But until then — right until the moment when the god Argot presented them with the goblet of bloodwine and a ceremonial knife with which to begin the blood-letting — Iirin hadn’t known how close it was to one. He held up his wrist for Aten to slash, wincing slightly at the pain just before Aten healed him.
More of his blood went into the wine than does theirs, with Tirenni muttering something about the potency of divine blood.
Tien and Aten drank first from the wine, trading sips before Aten pressed the rim of the heavy goblet to Iirin’s lips.
The bloodwine burned on the way down. Iirin gagged, throat working through the pain as Tien held him up and pressed to his side with one strong arm.
“H-hurts,” Iirin managed to gasp. It did. His head throbbed as did his throat and, oddly enough, the very tips of his fingers. And every single place where Iirin had those damned markings seemed to glow with a muted white light.
“It’s alright,” Tien crooned as he dropped to the floor with Iirin cradled in his arms. “You’ll be fine. I promise. It’s just the blood working through you.” He shifted on the floor until they were both comfortable and Aten was still standing, towering above them both like an overprotective guard keeping the nosy crowd and their murmurs away from them.
Iirin shook his head as best as he could with it pounding as though it was a drum. “I can’t — It hurts –”
Tien kissed the very tips of Iirin’s fingers. “Rest, Iirin. When you wake, things will be better.”
Iirin wanted to fuss, to argue about the likelihood of that, but before he could bring himself to even open his mouth, Iirin’s world washed away into darkness.