The glaive cuts through the chilly morning air with meek howls, performing a graceful dance as Shu’s hands guide it’s slender figure across the silent courtyard. But his movements are slower than he’d have liked. Too slow. It’s as if his muscles have been petrified, and each time he swings the glaive grows heavier. After three sets of drills, Shu lets the glaive fall onto the stone floors with heavy pants, sweat dribbling from his features.
“You’re not making my job easy, are you?”
Bracing himself, Shu looks up to see Mei walking towards him with a disapproving look.
“You’re up early,” Shu says.
Mei looks up to the dark blue skies, where the sun would only rise in a couple of hours’ time. “I could say the same about you.”
“How did you know?”
“You’re always like a zombie during the day even though you’ve got no training or missions assigned to you, so I figured something was up.” Mei sighs. “Your muscles aren’t fully healed yet, so stop pushing yourself. If you get hurt…”
“I have to,” Shu says through his panting. “I need to get stronger if I want to support Song.”
“My my… where did that come from?”
Shu’s glaive dematerialises into dark purple wisps before fading away. He gestures for Mei to follow him, and the both of them begin walking back to his quarters.
“I can never tell what Song is thinking sometimes,” Shu says as they stroll down the lantern-lit walkway. “That boy is always getting into trouble for no reason. But y’know what’s funny? He’s also the one that gets me out of trouble too, and solves his own problems regardless. Many times, I feel like I’m just being dragged along to whatever nonsense he’s up to.”
“He’s a handful one, isn’t he?” Mei says. “Must be difficult to keep up with him.”
“Which is why I have to get stronger.” Shu looks at his palms, which are still slightly pinkish from the martial art drills. “Song is always moving forward, chasing his dreams no matter how ridiculous they are. If I relax for even a moment, he’ll leave me in the dust.”
Mei bites his lip, a mask of sorrow steeling over his features. “Seriously… that boy doesn’t know how lucky he is.”
The song of nocturnal insects serenade the walkway as they approach the Garden of Resolution, a magnificent pavilion surrounded by twisting stone paths, with dense shrubs and flowers flanking them. Shu has always loved the gardens in the palace, even the more modest ones. The song of nature gives him a peace of mind. Maybe Song should try it too; he sure needs it pretty badly.
“Naive as ever.”
The voice burst out of nowhere, startling Shu and Mei and causing them to jerk and bump into each other. Shu quickly whirls around to search for the third person, his heart thumping wildly in his chest and his exhausted senses shocked back to hyper-sensitivity. But aside from Mei and himself, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the walkway or the garden.
“Who’s there?” The moment the words have left Shu’s throat, he immediately knows the answer. “Yan?”
A figure gently spills out of the shadows, his materialisation so fluid that Shu almost believes that he’s a ghost. No matter how many times Yan sneaks up on him, he can never suppress his awe for his abilities… even if it does annoy him to no ends.
“Can you be any ruder? You almost make Song look like he has common sense!” Mei squeals, stomping his foot petulantly.
Yan merely shifts his flinty stare back to Shu, which is slightly unnerving him. Although he shares Song’s resentment for Yan’s backstabbing, Shu can’t help but feel something was off about him.
“Mei, can you give us both some time alone?” Shu says.
At that, Mei drops his jaws. “Are you kidding? Leave you alone with him? After all that’s happened?”
“He has questions,” Yan says tersely. “And he knows I won’t talk unless you leave.”
Mei is about to retort, but Shu holds him by his wrist and shakes his head. Though still looking worried, Mei slowly begins to inch away from the two.
“Thanks,” Shu murmurs.
“I’ll prepare your bath for you, so don’t take too long.” Mei shoots one last accusative look at Yan before taking his leave.
When he’s finally out of sight, Yan snorts contemptuously, crossing his arms as if Shu is the one who’s offended him tonight.
“So are you gonna tell me why you did that?” Shu asks.
“You’re even calmer than I thought.” Yan’s hateful glare cuts back at Shu. “Why? How can you be so composed after all I’ve done?”
“I’m not Song, and you know that; that’s why you came to me, right?”
Shu walks towards the antagonistic boy. Under the lantern’s flickering light, a mysterious sheen dances on Yan’s chestnut-coloured hair, and with his piercing sharp eyes Shu gets the feel that he’s like a sword crafted by a divine blacksmith; cold, sharp, unforgiving, yet strikingly beautiful if you can look past his deadliness.
“Guess even your temper has its limits,” Yan says, a hint of validation surfacing from his tone. “Suppose you’re right, what’re you expecting me to say to you?”
“You’re here to tell me why you let everyone know about the wolf boy’s existence. And even if you’re not here for that, I want an answer. Now.”
Yan snorts again, but this time, Shu can pick up a trace of sadness from his withering gesture.
“What’s the point of telling you vermin anything? What’s done is done. Nothing any of us do now can change the past.”
Shu gives a perplexed look. “You’re not talking about that wolf boy, are you?”
“No.” Yan steps closer to Shu. “Want to know why I hate you so much? It’s because you’re both hypocrites. You talk about wanting to protect a Seeker because of he’s not evil, but you’ve already killed one like that before.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There was once a girl who saved my life,” Yan says, shifting his gaze into the night beyond, his eyes distant. “She sacrificed something very important in order to save me; she tainted herself for me. And yet, she never blamed me for it. I was indebted to her. I…” Yan swallows hard, his knuckles turning white. “I might have had feelings for her.”
At this, Shu is unable to hide his shock. “But－”
“I know!” Yan cuts him brusquely, but soon relaxes, albeit a little forcedly. “I know. It’s a serious taboo for a Purger to have feelings for someone other than his partner. But Zhe knew about it, my feelings. It was complicated.”
Shu shifts nervously in his place. “Uh… sorry, but how is this related to your hatred for us?”
Yan slowly, deliberately exhales, as if to keep his composure in check, as if to suppress the demons from breaking free of his mind. “The Night of Golden Blood; do you remember that night?”
“I… yeah, yeah I do.”
The Night of Golden Blood－ it was three years ago, when a once-peaceful village in the outskirts of Shi Shan was attacked by a massive reptilian Seeker that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Through its berserk, it murdered half of the village’s inhabitants, hundreds of lives gone in the blink of an eye. Shu and Song happened to be in the prefecture at that time and were able to make it in time to put a stop to the beast’s rampage. Yan and Zhe were there on that night as well.
“The Seeker you killed…” The light in Yan’s eyes are gone now; all that’s left is a hollow void of hatred and despair. “Was the girl that saved me.”
Mei approaches the doors of Shu’s quarters with brisk steps and clenched fists, not even bothering to hide his palpable anxiety.
“What’s wrong?” Song calls out.
Mei whirls around to face him.“S-Song? What’re you doing－”
“You’re not the only one who knows about Shu’s little game,” Song says with a faint air of impatience, the frigidness of his demeanour sending chills into Mei. “So tell me, what’s wrong? Why isn’t Shu with you?”
Swallowing nervously, Mei backs himself against the doors. “He’s… he’s with Yan.”
That name alone is enough to cause his blood to boil, the steam of fury clouding his mind and snuffing out his sense of judgement. Without another word, he turns around and storms towards the direction from where Mei came from.
“Wait!” Mei exclaims.
Through some sheer miracle of unexpected self-control, Song halts in his path.
“I know what this all looks like, but please listen,” Mei says, jogging towards his rage-possessed friend. “Shu asked for this, to leave them both alone. I felt it was a little worrying but－”
“But you let them be, even though you know Shu’s injured, and how much Yan hates us?” Song doesn’t even turn back to face Mei as he speaks. “The same person who dragged us down to that hell for no real reason other than his hatred for us?”
“I know! But Shu wants us to trust him. Yan had something important to say to him and he won’t spill it unless they’re alone.”
A moment of silence, then Song takes a deep breath. “Shu is my partner, not yours.”
“What would you do if someone who attempted to kill you and Lin asked if he could have some time alone with him?”
Mei hesitates, clutching his hands over his chest. Without waiting for an answer, Song sprints into the night, leaving his overwrought friend behind.
“What’s gotten into you lately…” Mei whispers.
“It’s not…” The revelation about Yan’s past is too much for him to bear. Shu shakes his head, staggering away from him. “We didn’t know… there’s no way we could’ve known!”
Yan watches as Shu wrestles against his own conscience, the overwhelming sense of guilt strangling him from the inside. “It doesn’t matter; you killed the one person in that accursed place that deserves to live, and preserved those that deserved to die. The both of you are scum.”
Shu knows that he’s too far gone beyond the point of no return, and that it’s far too late for apologies. Yan has every right to hate them. It’s no wonder he lost his temper when he and Song talked about wanting to protect a Seeker like Rei.
“I’m so sorry…”
Yan lets out a short, pained chuckle and scoffs, “Yes, yes, and all is right in the world once more and the both of you are absolved of your sins. Congratulations, you’re both saints once again!” Yan’s sardonic smile fades, and true, undiluted abhorrence steels on his features once more. “There’s nothing more in the world that I want than seeing the both of you die before me. If it hadn’t been for the laws of the Blossom, I would’ve slaughtered the both of you myself. But no, I have to think about Zhe as well. Consider yourselves lucky that I love him that much.”
Murdering a member of the Blossom without the Lord’s consent is equivalent to treason, and both the offender and his partner would be sentenced to death. Shu now understands Yan’s actions, and the worse part is he can’t even blame him for it.
“Looks like my time’s up,” Yan says.
Shu looks back to see a figure charging towards them at a blinding speed. Before he can even react, the newcomer narrows the distance between them, cutting in front of Shu and throwing up a gust of wind.
“S-Song?” Shu stammers.
“So close,” the silver-haired boy seethes, his fists mere inches away from Yan who managed to step back in time.
“At least you seem to be recovering well.” Yan flashes him a shark-like grin. “Surprised you would try killing me before your…” He then peers over to Shu. “Ah, almost slipped my tongue.”
Shu tilts his head quizzically, wondering what he meant by that.
“That strike wouldn’t have been enough to kill,” Song says. “Would’ve left you with a few broken ribs though.”
“Dead men don’t talk, and I still have questions.”
Toxic Chi energy radiates from Song as he stares Yan down, its nature so sinister that even Shu is starting to feel afraid. It’s hard to imagine him having this sort of fear for his partner after how long they’ve been together, but Song’s hatred is something nobody can comprehend－ depthless, profound, and unpredictable.
“Well, my job here is done, so you can have your partner back.” With one last smirk, Yan turns around and gives a backward wave. “Next time we meet, I’ll make sure to finish to job.”
Finish the job? Does he mean to kill them both? Didn’t he just say he couldn’t do it because of the Blossom’s laws? Shu can’t help but feel that Yan is hiding something in his cryptic message… something that Song knows. Before Shu can ask him however, Yan steps into the darkness beyond the lantern’s reach, and his figure dissolves into the night.
“That worthless little…” Song gnashes his teeth, his heavy panting more from his fury than exhaustion.
At this rate, there’s no way he’ll believe me even if I told him about Yan’s past, Shu thinks despairingly to himself.
“I’ll definitely…” Song says between heaves. “I’ll definitely… kill every single one last of them.”
“Oi! Calm down!” Shu bellows, grabbing him by the wrist. “What’s wrong with you?”
Song slices his glare back at Shu, and that’s when he notices that Song’s eyes have an unusual tint of gold, different from the usual gold whenever he flexes his powers. It’s as if his eyes are hollow, a completely different person from the Song he’s come to know, and it’s scaring him.
“Song, what’s going on?” Shu softens his tone. “You’ve been acting a little weirdly these days.”
The golden shine in Song’s eyes fade back to their usual grey, and he looks hesitant now. “Sorry, I got carried away. Are you uh… okay?”
“You ask me this now?” Shu clenches his fists. “I should be asking you that question! What’s happening to you? Is revenge the only thing on your mind lately?”
“Hah? I was worried about you too, okay?”
“Were you really? Then why did you try to break Yan’s body in half just now? You do realise that the both of us will be punished if the blow actually connected, right?”
Song jerks upright, as if electrocuted by the logic of Shu’s statement. It’s so obvious, yet he was blind to it. His hatred is like a veil over his eyes, and lately Shu can tell it’s been getting out of hand.
“Making decisions by putting your hatred before my safety? Are you even my partner anymore?”
“I’m sorry.” Song dips his head. “I just…”
“Tell me what’s going on, Song,” Shu says, clasping his partner’s shoulders with both hands. “You can tell me anything. No matter what it is, we can get through it together. You don’t have to take everything upon yourself, y’know?” With a mutter he adds, “You always do this.”
The silver-haired boy bites his lip, still refusing to make eye contact with him. Shu holds his gaze, now almost pleadingly at his partner.
“It’s…” Song looks away. “It’s nothing.”
“You’re－” Shu stops himself, knowing it’s futile to push him for anything in his current state. For the longest time, he’s put up with Song’s selfishness, but this time he’s gone too far. Shu drops his arms from him and backs off. “Forget it. I’m going back.”
As Shu turns to leave, Song calls out, “Wait!”
“If you’re gonna keep hiding things from me, then you can forget about me being your partner.”
Each step that takes him further away from Song spears his heart with pain, but seeing him in his current state is too much for him to bear. If he doesn’t do something about it soon, then he’s going to lose Song to his hatred.