The squalls of evening crows wash over the tranquil forest air, drowning out the howls of Song’s blade. The evening sunlight pours through the canopy of the the forest, painting the air and the nature around him in blazing orange. Though he’s spent the entire time practising his swordsmanship, his mind has never left Shu and what he said three nights ago. Ever since that night, his partner has been avoiding him, and it’s been hurting him greatly.
“Making decisions by putting your hatred before my safety? Are you even my partner anymore?”
“If you’re gonna keep hiding things from me, then you can forget about me being your partner.”
Anger pulsates through him whenever he thinks about those words, but it’s a different kind of anger from the one he’s used to. Loathing, yes, but for once, it’s self-loathe. He continues with his sword drills, stabbing and slashing at the air again and again with Zhi, as if to lash out at phantoms of himself, the parts that he hate about himself.
“So that’s where you are,” calls a voice from behind.
Song pauses and lowers his blade. Even as the person continues to approach him, Song can’t find the will to face him.
The footsteps finally stop, but no words fill the silence between them. The crows cry out in the distance again, as if rudely wanting to liven up the wordless atmosphere.
“The Festival of Moons is in two days’ time; that’s the day of your duel, right?” Mei begins. “That’s also the day when Father took us from our families.”
Mei shuffles in his place, obviously having more to say, but no words leave him. Still, Song can probably guess what’s on his mind.
“Hey…” Song says softly. “I’m a horrible person, aren’t I?”
“Hmm?” Mei eyes at him.
Song’s mind drifts back to the thoughts that have been haunting since Shu said those words to him. When Shu said them, he brought his fears to light.
“I’ve been so obsessed over my freedom, over my hatred, that I place everything else after it,” Song continues. Zhi slowly dematerialises from his hand, evaporating into mere wisps of Chi. “Even those that care about me.”
Mei purses his lips as he considers Song’s words. “Well, the fact that you’re having these thoughts mean something. You’re not a bad person at heart, I think.”
“Aren’t I?” Song looks back at his friend, but his gaze only meets his chest. “That deal I made with Kiin… if I die, Shu will be branded as a traitor and hunted down by the Blossom. It’s a death sentence to him, and yet I accepted it anyway. I was so stupid. I… I mean, defeat wasn’t something I was willing to accept, and honestly I’d rather die than to live as a slave to Kiin’s whims, but I never really thought about how Shu would feel.”
Mei lowers his gaze, looking sympathetic at Song’s internal struggle.
Song expels a shuddering breath. “Shu is right; I placed my hatred before my love for him. But then all this time, I’ve had nothing but hatred for the Blossom and Kiin himself, even more than the monsters that threaten to take my life. Hatred has been what’s driving me forward, pushing me to train harder, grow stronger. Hatred was the thing that made me feel strong and stopped me from spiralling into despair. If I take away this hatred…” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Then what am I?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen you talk this much.” Mei smiles gently and walks towards him. “It’s true that on the outside, you seem like an indestructible monster that could take on the whole world if you wanted to, and you do like you want to do just that. Shu always looks so protected because of this. I guess you can thank your hatred for that but…” Mei twirls one of his puffy twintails with a finger. “Somehow, I’ve always felt like you looked a little lonely, a little lost on the inside.”
“Maybe I am.”
“That’s what happens when you take everything upon yourself.” Mei takes Song’s hand and gently pulls him around to face him. “It’s still not too late for you.”
Song finally looks up, meeting his friend’s concerned gaze with his own. Even though it’s just for a moment, it feels good to set aside his own hatred and accept the love of his friend. Suddenly, he doesn’t feel so lonely anymore.
“For me, it is,” Song whispers. “But not for Shu.”
“What do you mean?”
He gives his friend a melancholic smile. “About that last favour I asked of you… there are a few changes I want to make.”
Even though it’s been three days, Shu still can’t get used to it. It’s the first time he’s refusing to eat with Song, the first time he’s trained alone, the first time he’s giving that silver-haired goofball the cold shoulder. Song is a huge part of his life, and pushing him away like this is equivalent to self-harm for a Purger. And yet, it can’t be helped; if he doesn’t show Song his anger, that boy will never change. He loves Song dearly, and it hurts to see his partner be consumed by his own hatred.
With a sigh, he dawdles down the lantern-lit walkway dejectedly, letting his heavy heart be the puppeteer of his body. It seems that what the Blossom taught them is true after all: Without his partner, a Purger’s life is meaningless.
“Rare of you to be looking so depressed.”
Shu snaps himself back to reality and looks towards the source of the voice. From the corner of the walkway, he spots Lin making his way towards him. While he retains his usual composure, Shu can tell that he’s concerned.
“It’s you,” Shu murmurs emptily.
“Were you hoping for someone else?”
“No, not really.”
Though obviously dissatisfied with his answer, Lin nods and takes his place by Shu’s side. The both of them walk in silence, letting the chirrups of nocturnal insects serve as conversation in their place.
As Shu is about to take the right path, his friend tugs him on the sleeve. “Let’s head over there,” Lin says, nodding towards the other side.
“The night is still young.”
Lin has a slight twinkle in his eyes as he speaks, which probably means he’s up to something. But Shu is too defeated to resist his friend’s mellow enthusiasm. Wordlessly agreeing to his call, Shu takes the lead towards the path Lin has chosen.
“So… what? You argued with Mei or something?” Shu says, stretching his arms behind him. “Otherwise, there’s no real reason to be hanging around me.”
“No way. Come on, it’s not forbidden for a Purger to show concern for someone other than his partner, y’know?”
“Sure, sure.” Shu rolls his eyes.
“You don’t sound convinced. Well, think what you like, but I really am worried about the both of you. Mei and I don’t have a lot of enemies in the Blossom, but we don’t exactly have any real friends in here either, aside from the both of you.”
“If you put it that way…”
The two break free from the walkway and head through the set of giant double-doors. A long open-air passage greets them, flanked by colossal walls with yellow upturned roofs lining their tops－ an imposing yet typical sight for a Purger within the palace. As they make their way through the passage, Shu sees a pair of Apprentices heading towards them, each holding a lantern. Upon noticing them, the young boys cease their chatters, halt and give the two fully-fledged Purgers a respectful bow as they pass.
“Patrolling, huh?” Lin smiles. “It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”
“We didn’t graduate from being Apprentices that long ago, dumbass.”
Shu glances over his shoulder to see the young boys hunch over and whisper to each other. Lin’s statement somehow feels less ridiculous the more he looks at them. Why does it feel like a lifetime ago that he and Song had been as open as that about their affection for one another? Come to think of it, why are the Apprentices all like that, while the fully-fledged Purgers are so reticent in comparison? Shu can’t help but feel a wistful longing for his Apprentice days.
Two sets of double doors loom into view, one on each side of the passage. As Lin angles to the right, Shu’s suspicions are confirmed.
“The Apprentices’ Quarters? What’re you up to?”
“Has Song ever told you how easily upset you can get?” Lin lets out a snort of laughter.
“Would be a lot more cheerful if you’d stop being so secretive about everything.”
“I’ll take the blame this time then.”
Lin pushes through the door with Shu following close behind. They’re greeted by the sight of a courtyard, the path ahead flanked by a hall on each side, and a long house at the far end of the passage.
Several Apprentice pairs are still outdoors despite the late hour, all of them joyously chatting between their partners. The smiles on their faces fill Shu with a feeling that’s not quite happiness, not quite envy… but rather, curiosity. Why are they so different from full-fledged Purgers like themselves?
“Amazing, aren’t they?” Lin’s smile turns melancholic. “We were once like them too, all of us who survived the ritual. Hard to believe that we’re only four years apart, isn’t it? Well, our batch, anyway, and not the old-timers like En and Yi.”
An Apprentice pair approaches another that is seated on the steps to the hall on the right, and their expressions change to a more serious tone as they converse. Of course, even among the Apprentices it was difficult to trust other pairs, but said friction is nothing compared to the ones of the full-fledged Purgers. If it hadn’t been for the Blossom’s laws, many of the Purgers would’ve killed each other by now.
“Sometimes, I can’t help but agree with Song,” Lin says. “What happened? Maybe it’s because of the responsibilities we were given as full-fledged Purgers, maybe it’s the arcana power from the ritual, I don’t know; it somehow just feels like we’re being pressured to become stronger every day and if we don’t, we die. I’m not sure what it is, but life as a Purger can be quite…” He pauses, searching for the right word.
“Suffocating,” Shu finishes for him, his tone hushed.
Lin stares at him briefly, then nods. “Yeah.”
“And what’re you getting at?”
By now, the Apprentices have noticed them. Forcing a smile, Lin walks towards the boys with Shu. “Do you think… that Song might be right?”
Normally, Shu would’ve scoffed at that question; everybody in the Blossom, including himself, has always been sceptical of Song’s ideals. It was easy to believe that Purger rivalry is inevitable and should be embraced; it was easy to believe that fighting Seekers is their duty and livelihood; it was easy to believe that becoming stronger every day is their only way of proving their existence; and it was so easy to believe that Kiin has the Purgers’ best interests at heart.
But when he looks at these boys, he can’t help but feel that something is off.
Shu can’t even remember the names of the boys he grew up with, the ones that died. Out of the Initiates he grew up with, how many of them didn’t make it? And the ones that are still alive today have changed so much they look nothing like the Apprentices standing before them.
Is this really the best way to live?
“Are you saying you believe in his ideals?” Shu whispers. “You really believe there’s a better life for us out there if we run away?”
“I’m not saying anything,” Lin answers. Shu can see it in his eyes－ conflict, doubt, perhaps even fear. “But if you, his partner, wouldn’t believe him, then who will?”
Lin’s statement is like a tight slap across Shu’s face. Suddenly, Shu understands. All this time, he’s been ridiculing Song for his obsession of running away from the Blossom; there was nobody who believed in him, and Shu can only imagine how lonely he must’ve been. He never once stopped to consider Song’s frustrations. And maybe, just maybe, Song wants this dream to happen not just for his own sake, but for Shu as well.
“I’m an idiot.” Shu bites his lip. “I… I said those hurtful words to him on that night. I told him to forget about us being partners but then… I never once supported him as a real partner.”
Lin sighs sympathetically. “It’s not entirely your fault; Song has gone a little too far as well, if you ask me.”
“Then all the more I should be there for him,” Shu says. “Yet, I pushed him away, thinking it’s the only way he could stop thinking about his hatred. But if I was never there to support him emotionally in the first place, then aren’t I partially responsible to why he’s like that today?”
“I… can’t give you an answer for that.”
Before Lin can continue, one of the Apprentices approaches him. “Brother Lin, is there something you need?”
“Not really.” Lin beams at the boy. “Just having an after-dinner stroll, and here we are.”
“Hoooh? Well, if it’s you, then I guess I can believe that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lin chuckles.
“You’re not mean, like a lot of the other Purgers,” chimes in another Apprentice as he hops to the first Apprentice’s side. He must be his partner. “Imagine if En came in here in the middle of the night.” He visibly shivers. “Wonder who’s gonna be sleeping out there in the courtyard this time.”
“Or dragged to the Electric Chamber,” his partner adds. “Brother Shu, you’re not here to punish us, are you?”
“W-what? What makes you say that?” Shu flusters, completely caught off-guard.
“Brother Shu won’t do that.” The second Apprentice winks. “He’s grumpy, not evil.”
“Oi!” Shu pinches both of the boys’ ears and adds with mock anger, “If you two keep this up, I’m gonna throw you both into the Palace’s moat myself.”
“Ow, ow ow!”
“Ow, sorry, sorry!”
Shu lets the boys go, and the cheeky Apprentice pair start giggling. Shu can’t help but chuckle along as well. Somehow, it’s refreshing to see the Apprentices play like this. Lin is right; they aren’t so different from these boys after all.
“Brother Shu, got any plans with Brother Song for the Festival of Moons?” the second Apprentice asks. “It’s in two days’ time, isn’t it? They say it’s the third most romantic day of the year.”
“The Festival of Moons, huh?” Shu mutters. All of a sudden, a rush of excitement surges through his chest. “Maybe this is a good time to break the ice between us, an excuse to ask him out.”
“Break the ice? Don’t tell me you argued with Brother Song?” the first Apprentice prompts.
“I… guess you could say that.” It’s at this time when Shu notices that Lin is unusually quiet, and unusually tense as well. “Lin? You okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, why do you ask?” Lin furrows his brows. “Are you sure it’s a good time to ask Song out on that day though?”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Lin hesitates, and Shu notices the subtle click of his tongue. His frustration only piques his curiosity even further.
“No, I was just wondering since you guys recently argued, that’s all,” Lin answers.
“Oh. Well, I’ll make it work somehow.”
Lin nods, but his mind seems to be elsewhere. Though he’s usually a boy of many secrets, Shu can’t help but feel uneasy about it; lately, it seems like a lot of people around him are hiding something. It’s as if something is going on right now… or maybe, something is going to happen soon. Shu doesn’t like this one bit.
“So that’s where you are.”
A newcomer－ Shu’s spine tingles. Every single person in the vicinity turn towards the voice by the entrance of the courtyard.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve talked, hasn’t it?” The boy steps into the warm embrace of the courtyard’s lights. Shu recognises him immediately, and his body unwittingly tenses up. It’s Zhou, Long’s partner. Contrary to Long’s majestic hairstyle, Zhou’s one has a more traditional vibe to it: black hair with sharply slanting bangs that shields over his right eye, with a slender and incredibly long sidetail tied up with a headband. Naturally, since Long and Song are sworn rivals, he doesn’t exactly have a good relation with Zhou.
“Zhou…” Shu loosely curls his fists. “What do you want?”
“Long has always been fixated with Song, we both know that,” Zhou says, stopping at an arm’s length from him. Up close, Zhou’s slight advantage in height is made apparent, and it only makes him look even more intimidating despite his composed manner of speech. “And lately, even more so.”
Zhou narrows his eyes. “Perhaps, perhaps not, but that’s not important to you right now.”
“So what’re you here for?”
The boy smirks. “What would you do if I told you Song is going to die soon?”
Shu frowns. “Hah? What the hell are you talking about?”
“You seriously don’t know anything, huh?” Zhou snorts, folding his arms. He slowly scans the faces around him and says, “I wouldn’t expect the Apprentices to know about it, but we Purgers do.” His eyes then stops at Lin. “And yet, nobody is telling you anything. Specifically you too.”
“And why should I believe you?” Shu says, but his words sound weaker than he’d have liked. Sensing his hesitation, Zhou smirks again.
Everyone’s been acting strangely lately. Mei, Lin, even Song, and all the other Purgers… it’s like everyone is hiding something, but why am I the only one confused here?
“I pity you,” Zhou says. “The others don’t want you to interfere with Song’s death sentence. That’s the only reason why they kept this from you.”
“Then why are you telling me this?” Shu whispers. He then shoots a look at Lin. “Why are you and Mei hiding things from me? Tell me, what is going on with Song!”
Lin bites his lip, tensing his shoulders. “I…”
“Aren’t you supposed to be my friend?” Shu raises his voice. “Song is my partner! If you know he’s in danger, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I… have my reasons.”
Zhou steps forward and says, “It’s not as simple as you think. If Lin really is your friend, I can think of a few reasons why he wouldn’t tell you that.”
“And you?” Shu seethes.
“I have my own reasons as well, but if you want it, then you’ll have to force it out of me.”
“You said it yourself－ Song’s life is in danger; I don’t have time for this! You’re a Purger too, so why can’t you understand how I feel?”
“And you understand the rivalry between Purgers, don’t you?” Zhou counters. “Many would prefer to have the both of you dead, and I’m not against that either. I’m only telling this to you because I think you deserve to have the right to watch your partner die. If it were me in your place, I’d have liked the same as well.”
“You…” As Shu’s rage builds, his Chi flares. The Apprentices notice this and cautiously back away from him. “If it’s a fight you want, then I’ll take you on.”
“Is that so?”
For a split second, Shu could see a crack in his vision. His instincts scream, and with a sharp exhale he leaps backward, soaring over the Apprentices and landing several meters away. Lin and the other two other Apprentices stagger back, wide-eyed and shocked from Shu’s sudden action.
What the hell was that? He grits his teeth, trying to steel his nerves.
“Not bad.” Zhou’s expression remains unchanged, almost as if he was expecting this reaction from him. “Would be a real disappointment if that was all it took to kill you.”
Kill me? Shu isn’t sure what he felt, but he knew it was too dangerous to ignore. As if things weren’t dire enough already…
“What the hell are you doing?” Lin shoves Zhou by his shoulder. “Try anything else and I’ll－”
“This is none of your business,” Zhou cuts him brusquely. “You’re even more irrelevant than you realise, Lin, or do you need to hear it from Shu before you know your place in this mess? After all, aren’t you one of the people hiding Song’s situation from him as well?”
At that, Lin gnashes his teeth in defeat, casting a desperate look at Shu. But Shu shuns him by shifting his gaze back to Zhou. He’s right; there’s no way he can trust Lin anymore after tonight. He might have had his reasons, but Song’s life is far too valuable for any justifications.
“Was that really your power?” Shu asks. “I don’t remember that being part of your abilities.”
“And what do you know of my power?” Zhou saunters towards Shu, and the surrounding boys hastily distance themselves from him. “Much as I hate to admit it, I can understand why Long is so interested in your partner. Long has always been obsessed with becoming the strongest Purger in the Blossom, always obsessed in seeking strong rivals. Song’s power and skill is unquestioned. You, however…” And that is when Shu can see the disdain in his eyes. “You’re weak. It sickens me to even think you would be the partner of someone who’s captured Long’s attention.”
“Is that your reason for wanting to fight?” Shu slowly widens his footing, raising his fists. “Killing because you can’t stand someone like me in your circle of conflict? Pretty childish for a full-fledged Purger, if you ask me.”
“I’d rather think of it as a test. I’m more interested in seeing how a weakling like you deserves to even stand by Song’s side for this long.” Zhou glances at the Apprentices watching them, which have since quadrupled in numbers since their banters began. “Looks like we have an audience now. To avoid breaking the laws of the Blossom with our so-called ‘conflict’, we’ll have to make this an official duel.”
Shu knows it’s more than just his honour at stake; Zhou knows something about Song’s situation, and if what he says is true, then Song might be in danger. Shu isn’t sure of anything right now, but for Song’s sake, he’ll do anything.
“Fine,” Shu says. “I’ll make you regret underestimating me.”