Morning comes in the form of birdsong for the pair. Sunlight filters through the paper screens, bathing the room in a hazy glow and mixing its warmth with the dawning chills. Song stirs beneath the blanket, planting his face on Shu’s shoulder, drool oozing from the corner of his lips.
“Eww, you idiot!” Shu pushes Song’s head away. “First time in ages since we’ve shared a bed and this is what you do?” When his question is only answered with a snore, Shu sighs and sits upright, wiping his goo-covered shoulder. “Get up already. There’s daylight.”
This time, Song manages a slurry murmur. With no patience left to burn, Shu lightly slaps him on the cheeks several times.
“Stop…” Song slurs. “We don’t even have training today.”
“That’s because it’s our execution day.” It somewhat horrifies Shu that he can say something so appalling with such calmness. “But it doesn’t mean you can sleep in.”
“And why not?”
“Because we’re wasting the day away— our last day.”
“The world is gonna end anyway even if I wake up… just let me sleep through it…”
“Geez…” Shu rolls his eyes. “It’s all your fault for overdoing it.”
Eventually, Shu is able to revive his to a certain extent. Song lazily pushes himself up, his eyes barely open. Before Shu can throw in any more disapproving remarks, someone outside rasps against the door.
“W-wait!” Shu panics, pulling the blanket up to cover his body.
The doors burst open, and a pair of Apprentices walk into the room, each with a tray of food in their hands.
“Brother Song, Brother Shu, breakfast is—” The Apprentice freezes at the sight of his naked seniors, and so does his partner. With comically widened eyes and his face beet-red, the young boy hastily says, “I-I’m sorry! I’m sorry! We’ll put your breakfast here and leave.”
The boys hurriedly leave the trays on the table and scramble out of the room, shutting the doors behind them. Shu sighs. Song yawns. Shu then slaps Song on the head and says, “You’re such a bum that it’s almost cute.”
After washing up and getting changed, the boys settle down to have their breakfast. They eat in silence, though not much of the food is touched by the end of the meal. Shu can tell even someone as thoughtless as Song is perturbed by their impending fate. Nobody is ever truly prepared to die.
It wasn’t as strong when he woke up, but now Shu can feel the anxiety mercilessly gnawing at his heart, the despair and desperation shaking his soul like the hands of a murderous madman around his victim’s neck. It’s driving him insane, and all he can do is stare in silence at the plates of unfinished noodles and dumplings.
“The duel starts in the evening, before dinner,” Song says, his tone not betraying even a shred of fear or worry. “So what do you wanna do before that?”
Even at a time like this, he’s still trying to put on a tough front. Shu’s heart now feels as if it’s being wrenched apart by sadness and fear from both sides. Isn’t it difficult to act tough all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier if he was more honest with his weakness and emotions?
“Hey, I’m talking to you.” Song waves before Shu’s face. “Are you mad about last night again? Or is it about this morning?”
Shu snorts, shaking those emotions away. “You seriously never change, huh?”
“Hah? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, nothing.” Shu smiles and stands up. “Come on, we’ve still got a day to spend together.”
Shu approaches the guards outside and asks if they can spend their last day touring the Palace. To his surprise they tell him the house arrest is over after they’ve had their breakfast.
“Kiin is being merciful to us?” Song stretches his arms behind him. “Why don’t I have a good feeling about this?”
“Oh, quit whining. We’re about to be executed anyway, so what’s the worst he can do to us now?”
“That is… true.”
As they walk past the other Apprentices and Purgers, many of them sneak dirty looks at them as if they’re criminals— and as a matter of fact, they actually are. Shu is beginning to wonder if it’d be less distressing if they remained in his quarters instead. Song, on the other hand, has his usual look of disinterest as they tour the Palace. Either he has nerves of steel, or he’s the most oblivious idiot within the Blossom— both of which are very plausible conclusions.
The both of them turn to see Mei and Lin jogging towards them from other side of the courtyard. As always, Mei is a ray of sunshine while Lin is the cool breeze of summer.
“What were you two thinking!” Mei hops over and pinches Song’s cheeks, stretching them like toffee. “We were so worried when we heard you were caught by Father!”
“Shtop praying wirf my cheeks.” Song’s stubborn monotone and lethargy remain intact even under Mei’s assault on his face, which causes Shu to chuckle.
“You could’ve asked us for help, at least,” Lin adds sulkily. “Though I guess it might have been a little awkward after what I did to you.”
“It’s fine, I’m not mad anymore,” Shu says with a smile. “You had your reasons, and my idiot of a partner probably made you hide it anyway so he’s the one I should be mad at.”
“Sho you’re shtill mad?” Song asks through his stretched face; his resilience to Mei’s bullying never ceases to amaze Shu.
“Of course I am! But well, no point in dwelling on it.”
“What’re you gonna do now then?” Mei asks sombrely, letting go of Song’s face. “That duel with Father… surely you’re not counting on Song to win that, are you?”
“Why does everyone have no faith in me at all?” Song rubs his reddened cheeks. “It’s not like we can run anyway, so I guess we’ll just have to die.”
“How can you say something so horrible so easily?” Mei bellows. “I know it’s you, Song, but can you take this more seriously? You too, Shu! God! You’re both about to be executed!”
“It’s not that I’m not scared,” Shu says softly. “But what choice do we have? Escaping from the Palace is easy to say, but you saw what happened to us when we tried.”
“That doesn’t mean you can just give up like this! Ugh, am I the only sane one around here?” Mei turns to look at his partner. “Lin, say something! We’re friends with them, aren’t we? Why’re you so quiet about this?”
Lin bites his lip, guilt cracking on his features. “Much as I hate to say it, but they’re right; there’s nothing we can do now. It’s Father and the entire Blossom we’re going up against. Honestly, I don’t even think we can take on just Father himself in a four-on-one.”
“Lin…” Mei looks as if he’s about to burst into tears.
“But that doesn’t mean I’ll quit on you now.” Lin looks back up to face Song and Shu, fire rekindling in his eyes. “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know. No matter how foolish your ideas are, I’ll do my best to assist you.”
“Lin…” Mei sniffles, then squeals as he rushes over to embrace his partner. “That’s why I love you so much, you poser! Why do you always have to force yourself to look cool?”
“P-poser? That’s harsh, y’know…”
A feeling of warmth radiates within Shu as he watches his two friends struggle in their mutually intruding gestures, enough to dispel his own distress. Mei and Lin are wonderful boys, and he’s grateful for them in many ways, especially now. If only the circumstances were better…
“Anything, huh?” Song butts in. “Well, let’s go for food then.”
“Already?” Shu exclaims in astonishment. “We just had breakfast a couple of hours ago!”
“We need to think of a way to escape, right? Well, I can’t think without food.”
“You don’t even think at all! Food is all you care about!”
“Come now, if that’s what Song wants I guess it doesn’t hurt to visit the kitchen,” Mei says.
“Whatever.” Shu rolls his eyes. “Do what you want, Song. I really can’t take you seriously at all.”
“You never did.” Song shrugs. “Let’s go then! Foooood…”
As they navigate through the walkways, Shu can feel the faintest of hope squealing in his veins, spurring him on and giving him life. Perhaps he’s not ready to give up just yet. It won’t be easy, but they’ll find a way to escape somehow.
The Imperial Kitchen is located close to the central Palace, so it’s no surprise there’s a lot of traffic on their way there. However this time, Shu feels that it’s much easier to endure the stares and glares from the other boys when Mei and Lin are with them. When they finally arrive at the Kitchen— a notably long, single-storey building— Song leaps ahead of the group and barges through the doors, urged by the aroma of soy sauce chicken.
“That goon has no sense of delicacy at all,” Shu groans. “We’re not even supposed to step into the Kitchen without permission.”
“That’s part of his charm though, isn’t it?” Mei chuckles.
“It’s rare to see someone so graceless though, even among peasants,” Lin mutters.
The three stop by the flung-open doors of the Kitchen, only to see the oafish boy wolfing down on pork buns with both hands, much to the shock of the Apprentices working in there. Several of them meekly try to stop his slaughter on comestibles, but to no avail. As comically horrifying the scene is, Shu acknowledges that the both of them had barely touched their breakfast. Though he isn’t close to the level of gluttony Song is on, even he feels a little hungry himself.
“We really need a leash for him, geez…” Mei shakes his head with a humoured grin.
Even Lin, who normally puts on a cool front, can’t hide his shock from the scene unfolding before him. “It’s like he hasn’t eaten for three days.”
“Well, missing breakfast is as good as three days for that pig,” Shu steps past the stupefied Apprentices and heads towards Song. “Hey musclebrain, you’re supposed to ask the cooks if they’ve got food to spare, not terrorise them!”
Song looks up with a curtain of egg noodles hanging from his mouth. “Mmf?” He slurps it all in before handing Shu a pork bun from a basket next to him, along with a bottle of water.
“One of these days I have to teach you how to behave like a proper human being.” But Shu smiles nonetheless and takes the food and drink from his hands. “Thanks.”
Even Mei and Lin can’t help but grab a bun each for themselves as they watch the chaos ensue before them.
The boys leave the kitchen with their bellies filled, including Song. Especially Song. The slight bump of Song’s stomach says everything as he pats it with satisfaction.
“Now I can do with a nap.” Song lets out a burp, much to Shu’s disgust.
“Ew, gross! I’ve told you so many times that it’s inelegant to do that!” Shu scolds, slapping his partner’s shoulder. “And we’re supposed to be thinking of a way to escape, idiot!”
“That boy never changes, even in the face of death.” Mei sighs.
“It’s actually impressive how unrefined you are,” Lin adds, shaking his head.
“Come to think of it, don’t the two of you have training or missions today?” Shu asks.
Mei and Lin exchange looks, and Mei is the first to back down with an uneasy expression.
“We do, but your problem is more important right now,” Lin says.
“A day in the Electric Chamber is worth it,” Mei adds, though with a shaky voice, as if not quite believing what he’s saying. “Can we get a move on before our instructors find us?”
Shu pulls his dearest friends close for a group hug, both grateful and heartbroken by their decision. Would they have been happier if they’re out of the Blossom as well?
The four of them make their way towards southern section of the Palace. In the eastern corner, sitting close is a building dubbed as the Storeroom of Imparting Strength. Since it only stores miscellaneous items and equipment for the Palace, very few people would wander around these parts.
The boys spend hours trying to come up with something, with Song contributing as a scout by scouring various locations of the Palace to test their theories, but nothing seems to work. The Shadow Palace has no weak points, and all of the rumours they know regarding any lapse in security are exposed as nothing more than sensational stories for young Apprentices. There is no hole in the wall beneath the North-East turret of the Palace, no secret tunnels by the Palace God Temple, no illusory walls in the Pavilion of Holy Spring, nothing.
By midday, nothing has been achieved aside from a few bruises across Song’s body. As Mei and Lin continue their discussions while Song rubs his bruised nose from the illusory wall test, a wave of fatigue suddenly washes over Shu. As a matter of fact, throughout the day Shu has been feeling unusually tired, but he couldn’t bear to sit out on the discussions while their lives are at stake.
Now, Shu knows something is wrong. Very wrong. It’s only a little past noon, but it feels as if he hasn’t slept for three days straight. By now, he can’t even hear the buzzing of the summer cicadas anymore, as if the world has gone silent around him.
“Song…” he whispers weakly, tugging at his sleeve. “I don’t… feel right.”
“Huh?” Song notices the change in Shu. He grips his shoulder with a look of concern. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
Mei and Lin stop their chatters and have their attention on Shu now.
“I’m just… tired.” Shu unwittingly nods again, his head feeling heavier by the second.
“It’s too early to look this sleepy.” Mei leans over to his friend. “Are you really all right?”
“Just need to… rest my…”
Before he can finish, darkness finally caves in, and Shu’s head lulls to one side. He feels his head landing on something soft and strong, the last sensation he can feel before drowning in oblivion.
“What’s wrong with him? Shu, wake up! Shu!” Mei shouts.
Shu lays unconscious in Song’s arm, and Song gently combs his hair away from his face. Lin moves over to place a hand over Shu’s forehead before checking his breathing.
“No fever, and his breathing is normal; my best guess is that he’s sedated by something.” Lin then shifts his attention to Song, suspicion riddled on his features. “You’re oddly calm for someone whose partner just collapsed. You did this, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Song answers half-heartedly.
“What?” Mei shakes his head in disbelief. “No, no way. Why? What did you do to him?”
“I put some sedative drugs in the bun I gave him this morning. The drugs were from the Palace’s doctor, Shen, someone who knows Shu’s body, so the dosage is safe for him.”
The Purger pair now realise they’ve all been tricked by Song’s act this morning. Perhaps it wasn’t an act and that he was genuinely hungry, but either way nobody could’ve expected a thoughtless boy like Song to do something like this. Mei wears a look of horror, but Lin seems perfectly accepting of the situation.
“The both of you were placed under house arrest for the entirety of yesterday, so that means you must’ve prepared the drugs even before that,” Lin says. “Hard to imagine you thinking ahead at all, but this is all for Shu, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Song gets up with his beloved partner in his arms. Despite wearing his usual deadpan expression, the Purger pair can sense the deep melancholy from his eyes. “About that last favour I asked of you awhile ago, Mei… now is the time to do it.”
“Shu isn’t going to be happy about this,” Mei mutters.
“That’s fine.” Song places Shu in his friend’s arms, albeit with a slight trace of reluctance. “I’ll deal with his wrath in the afterlife, but at least this way I have many more years to wait for that.”
“And just how are we going to leave the Palace with Shu?” Lin asks. “Aren’t the both of you supposed to be banned from leaving?”
“I am, but not Shu,” Song answers. “Know how the Blossom’s law works when it comes to house arrests? The offender isn’t allowed to stay in his own quarters because all of his stuff is confiscated, but he’s allowed to stay in a non-offender’s quarters. Thing is, the non-offender must serve as his supervisor for the entirety of his punishment time.”
“And they let you stay in Shu’s quarters…”
Song nods. “That means even though we were both caught, Shu actually wasn’t sentenced to anything. And Yan said it himself— Shu is allowed to leave the Palace any time.”
Lin sighs and says, “So you actually aren’t a complete idiot. Why can’t you be like this more often?”
“What’re you saying? He is an idiot!” Mei clenches his fists until his knuckles turn white. “If I were Shu, I’d never forgive you for this.”
Song reaches over and lovingly caresses his partner’s cheek. It feels so surreal to accept that this is the last time he’ll ever see Shu, and he can sense the child within him throwing a tantrum, childishly refusing to accept fate’s cruel biddings. But fate cannot be changed simply because one wants it to; one has to fight to change it, against all odds. Defeating Kiin might seem impossible now, but he has to manage somehow if he wishes to stay with Shu.
“I guess this is goodbye then,” Lin says. “I don’t usually condone such foolish actions… but I think I’d have done the same if I were you.”
“You truly are the world’s biggest moron, you know that?” Mei blinks back his tears. “This isn’t the last time we’ll be seeing each other, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you.” Song takes each of their hands and gives them a tight squeeze. All these years he’s spent with them, all the laughter they’ve shared, all the times they stood up for each other in the Shadow Palace— these are memories he’ll cherish forever, to his last dying breath. There’s so much that he wishes to say to his friends, but he knows that time is running out. “Please go.”
Lin takes Shu in his arms. Slowly, reluctantly, the Purger pair take their leave. Mei looks back over his shoulder one last time and meets with Song’s unwavering gaze. There are no tears in his eyes, no real expression to speak of since it’s Song they’re talking about, possibly the most deadpan and thoughtless boy in the Blossom.
But right now he looks even sadder than any of them.