141 The Emperors Paradox Pt.2

    Almost immediately, a heavy, musky scent attacked Jimin's nostrils, causing him to scrunch his nose in disdain. With his hand swatting the air around him, he swept his gaze across the large room. He glared at the incense burner in the corner.

    What sort of remedy were the royal physicians trying this time?

    "Your Highness?" he called out. "Your Highness, are you there?"

    Jimin walked a little further until he encountered balls of scrunched up paper littering his path. Like his last visit, he followed the trail until it led him to the woman who was responsible for the mess. He let out a soft sigh when he found her surrounded by her sketches.

    "Your Highness..."

    Upon hearing his voice, the woman peered over her shoulder. Jimin watched as she studied his face, her kind eyes wavering between recognition and wariness. He held his breath as he waited to see whether it was one of her good days or bad days.

    "...Chim?" A smile graced her features, showing the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.

    Relief washed over Jimin. Today is a good day.

    "I have not seen you in a while." She beckoned to the seat opposite her messy desk, where piles of papers occupied the floor, "Please, come sit with me."

    Jimin moved to oblige, but something on the floor caught his eye. He halted at his step as he picked up an uncrumpled sheet, his brows knitting together as he tried to decipher the contents of the page.

    Noticing his hesitance, the woman enquired, "Do you know what that picture is of?"

    Jimin shook his head. "No," he admitted. His eyes returned to studying the sheet. There was something about it that seemed surreal. Jimin could tell from what looked like trees and what appeared to be a mountain, that it was a sketch of a place, but he couldn't be certain. Not when there were strange, geometric shapes sprouting from the ground.

    "I thought not," the woman replied with a sad smile. "No one ever does."

    "Whatever it is, it is beautiful, Your Highness." Jimin placed the sketch on top of her crowded desk as he took his seat opposite her. He peered at her incomplete sketch and noted that it was a portrait. "You are very talented."

    The woman hummed in reply as she picked up the sheet Jimin had been holding. It was a place that no one else but she knew of. Remembered. She discarded it before her other forgotten memories resurfaced, memories that, had she dwelled on, would have evoked more conflicted emotions.

    She met eyes with the pretend eunuch. "To what do I owe your visit, Chim? Has my husband been misbehaving again?"

    Jimin had a tight-lipped smile. "His Majesty has been behaving, I can assure you, Your Highness."

    The woman scoffed as she tucked a strand of grey hair behind her ear. "I hope so. He rarely leaves his war council, so I do not see him often." The woman returned to sketching with her piece of charcoal. "What is it with men and their love for battles?"

    Jimin watched as the woman tutted under her breath as she went on a lengthy sermon on the importance of making peace instead of war. He listened carefully, nodding when it was appropriate and offering his opinion when she requested it. Jimin couldn't help but be impressed by her assertiveness and eloquent speech; how her way of thinking was so different from his own and how her cleverness remained undimmed despite her age. It made him wonder how magnificent she must have been during her prime.

    "So, are you saying that emperors are neither equal nor above the people but actually beneath them?" Jimin was flabbergasted by the woman's bold claim. "Why?"

    "Emperors can never be human," the woman replied solemnly. "They cannot act on their selfish desires, or they will risk losing their divinity and reverence. If the lay people witness the emperor succumb to such basely needs, then the emperor's darkest secret is revealed."

    "The emperor's darkest secret?" Jimin repeated. He had never heard of such a thing. "What is that?"

    The woman glanced around her as if to ensure the pair were truly alone. "Do you want to know?"

    Jimin nodded.

    She gestured for him to lean in and he followed. "All emperors bleed."

    Jimin was puzzled.

    "It presents quite the paradox, does it not?" The woman straightened herself as she elaborated, "An emperor cannot be human but is; an emperor cannot have desires but does; an emperor must not act on their desires but will."

    "But how does that make an emperor beneath its people?"

    The woman grinned as she added the finishing touches to her sketch. "Most emperors consider themselves above the people because they believe they have a divine right. They are next to God. But a true emperor is someone who puts his people above himself, sacrificing his own needs for the needs of all." She turned to Jimin thoughtfully. "A true emperor is neither God as he is not above, nor is he equal as he is not human. He is beneath his people because he cannot fit either of these categories. He is a hybrid. A hybrid that must remain humble so that his kingdom will thrive. If not, that kingdom will crumble."

    Jimin was quiet as he contemplated her words. She was right. Often Jimin felt like he was two different people occupying the same body. On one hand, there was Chim, the boy who had grown up in the Temple, and on the other was Jimin, the emperor of Saim. At first, the divisions were clear cut but as time wore on, Jimin wasn't sure anymore.

    And it was all because of her.

    Jimin stared at the woman and observed her gnarly, small hands. From his seat he could see that she had aged well; a flower barely withered by the elements. Seeing her before him made him wish that his father was still alive. He would have known what to do about these troublesome feelings. He could have taught Jimin everything. Before he could stop himself, Jimin suddenly asked, "What about His Majesty?"

    The woman looked up from her sketch. "What about him?"

    "Do you think he had put the people before himself?"

    The woman's brows furrowed. "Had?" she repeated. "Why do you speak as if he is no longer here?"

    "My-my apologies," Jimin hastily replied, horrified by his blunder, "I mean-"

    "My husband is a good man." The woman's voice was cold and sharp. "He may have his shortcomings but whatever he decides, he decides for the good of the kingdom." The woman narrowed her eyes at Jimin. "Watch your tongue, Chim. I may have granted you permission to speak freely, but he is still your emperor."

    Jimin nervously licked his lips. It had been a long time since he had been chastised by anyone that it felt foreign. Becoming emperor had made him forget what it was like to be humble. "I am sorry I overstepped, Your Highness." He cast his eyes down in shame.

    The woman's features eventually softened. "You are forgiven."

    Just as Jimin was about to thank her, he suddenly spotted the completed portrait. His eyes widened. "That picture..."

    The woman looked down at her sketch. "Oh, this?" She turned the page around so that Jimin could see it better. "It is my boy," she said with a cheerful smile. "My Jiminie."

    Jimin blinked at the picture before him. It was of a young child, not much older than five summers. He had long hair that curled at the ends and big, round eyes. Jimin couldn't help but smile a little at the sight of the boy's pouted lips and puffy and pinchable cheeks. As his eyes took in the rest of the sketch, he noticed that the boy was carrying something in his hand- something that resembled a rice cake.

    "My Jiminie must be ten years old now," Jimin heard the woman say softly. "He is a beautiful child, is he not?"

    Jimin nodded, a dull ache in his heart making itself known.

    "The servants say he resembles my husband." The woman let out a chuckle. "But I think he looks more like me. See here?" The woman pointed to his lips. "He inherited that from me."

    Jimin chortled in agreement. "Yes... the resemblance is uncanny."

    The woman grinned. "My Jiminie is a very bright child," she peered down at the sketch and stroked it proudly, "just like his mother."

    Jimin took in a shaky breath.

    "He loves rice cakes, you know," the woman mentioned. "I used to find him hiding underneath this large desk munching on them when no one was looking. He used to throw a tantrum because I would not let him have any more."

    "Do you miss him, Your Highness?"

    The woman looked taken aback by his question. Had he overstepped again?

    "Every day." She met eyes with Jimin, and he saw they were shiny with tears. "But he is Crown Prince. It was necessary for him to leave my side."

    Jimin had heard the story before. The story of why, as an infant, he had to leave the palace and go to the Temple. Upon his return, his sister had revealed the details but Jimin knew there was more to the story than what was relayed to him. Something about it was amiss.

    Feigning ignorance, he asked, "What do you mean?"

    "It is not safe here," the woman simply explained. "The palace may be safe from outsiders but not from enemies within." She stared at the picture. "I could not let what happened to my firstborn happen to my Jiminie. I cannot re-live that pain again-"

    Suddenly, the woman briefly froze, and her expression turned blank.

    Jimin searched her countenance. "Your Highness?"

    The woman blinked several times before looking at Jimin as if noticing his presence for the first time that day. "Chim?" A puzzled look riddled her features. "When did you get here?"

    Jimin's heart sank.


    "Where is my husband?" She scrutinised her surroundings and the sketches scattered around her. "I should be by his side. Why am I still here? He needs me by his side-" The woman briskly got up and made her way to the door.

    Jimin chased after her. "Your Highness!" He blocked her path before she could leave.

    "Let me pass, Chim. I need to see my husband-"

    "Do you not remember, Your Highness?" Jimin interrupted.

    "Remember what?"

    "You are ill. You were told by the royal physicians to recuperate in your quarters."

    The woman had a doubtful look. "But I feel all right-"

    "His Majesty is busy with his war council," Jimin blurted. "He instructed me to ensure that you rest."

    There was silence as the woman searched Jimin's eyes. "Truly?"

    A flicker of pain stung Jimin at having to lie so blatantly to her face. "Yes, Your Highness." He gestured toward her desk. "You were telling me a story and had just excused yourself to rest. I was just leaving, remember?"

    The woman glanced back at her messy quarters and then to Jimin. "Y-yes, of course. I am sorry for keeping you."

    "There is no need to apologise, Your Highness."

    The woman watched as Jimin bowed, completely oblivious to the way Jimin's expression crumpled for a split second. As Jimin straightened himself to depart, the woman suddenly urged him to wait. Jimin watched as the woman hurriedly fetched something from a tray near her table.

    "Will you do a favour for me?" She stretched out her hand to reveal a sealed letter and familiar a box. It was the same box she always gave him after every visit. "Will you ensure that this reaches the Temple?"

    Jimin reluctantly accepted the items.

    "It is for the Crown Prince," the woman mentioned. "It is his birthday soon."

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    Jimin flinched.

    When he first arrived at the palace, he did not know how to approach his mother. He had no memories of her. Raised by monks from a very young age, Jimin had no awareness of his royal lineage. He believed he was an orphan like the other boys. It was only when Zeren asked about his parents that he started wondering about them. Who were they? And if they were still alive, why had they abandoned him?

    He was twelve when he learned the truth.

    Jimin brought the presents close to his chest as he tried to choke back his emotions. For the past few months, Jimin had been taught to always put the people before himself; to be a good emperor. A part of him- the selfish part of him- had thought it was unfair how he had to endure and sacrifice everything. He never asked to be emperor. He didn't want to be. But learning of his mother's struggles made him realise that it wasn't only him who had to make sacrifices. In the end, an empress had to make them too.

    Jimin stared woefully at his mother, the words he wanted to say left unspoken. If only he could tell her she needn't worry about him anymore. If only she knew her son was right there. When he first met his mother, all he wanted to say to her was that her son was finally home. He simply wished to be a family again, but alas, fate had a cruel way of reuniting them. It was already too late.

    Jimin bowed again as he spoke softly, "As you wish... Your Highness."
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