142 Where Wildflowers Bloom Pt.1

    Jimin was trembling as he left the room, his head hanging low. The letter in his hand felt like lead; the box a deadweight at the end of his arm. He should be accustomed to the heaviness in his chest- a mixture of regret, frustration and sadness-but he wasn't. Each time he received the box, these unwanted emotions overwhelmed him, reminding him of the futility of his wishes.

    No matter how much he willed it, he couldn't turn back time.

    "How pitiful," Jimin scorned. Having arrived at his private quarters, he glanced at the box and the single lotus that decorated the lacquered lid: the emblem of his clan and the kingdom he ruled. "To be bestowed all this power yet be powerless to do anything..." He sighed as he gently placed the box and letter on his crowded desk. "I am no less helpless than the next man."

    "I take it the visit to Her Highness didn't go well."

    Startled, Jimin immediately sprung into a defensive position, his arms grabbing hold of the stranger's clothes. A surprised grunt escaped the man's lips as Jimin pinned him to the wall.

    "Woah! Steady, Your Majesty, it's just me!"

    "Zeren?" Jimin loosened his grip when he recognised the person's voice. "What were you doing lurking around? You frightened me."

    The bronze-faced guard scoffed as he straightened his uniform. "That's my line." He was about to say more when he noticed Jimin heading for the dressing screen in the corner. He scrambled after him. "Your Majesty! Wait up!"

    A scowl formed on Jimin's lips. Weeks confined indoors had meant being constantly addressed as royalty. He was sick of it. It was like each time he heard others say those words, an illusory ball and chain snaked around his ankles, his wrists, his neck. The last thing he wanted was for Zeren to remind him of his change in fortune- everyone in the kingdom occupied that job already.

    He swerved around.

    "I thought I told you not to call me-" Jimin abruptly stopped.

    From afar, the young emperor spotted a dark bruise blooming around Zeren's left eye. A gash encrusted with dried blood marred his bottom lip while smaller cuts punctuated his cheek like angry freckles on his tanned skin. Jimin had been so preoccupied with his thoughts earlier that he hadn't noticed Zeren's injuries. Injuries which Zeren didn't have a few weeks prior.

    "What... what happened to you?"

    The imperial guard gave a half-hearted smile. "So, you've finally noticed?"

    Jimin didn't reply.

    "I dare say, the military police are quite scrupulous when it comes to their punishments," Zeren said bitterly as he limped toward his friend.

    Jimin's brows furrowed. "The Guan Yu did this to you?"

    "Oh no," Zeren smiled wryly, "even better. I had the honour of being beaten by their leader: General Lee."

    Immediately, Jimin's face darkened.

    Lately, the war general had been giving Jimin grief by reviving the notion of expansionism during their meetings in court. While Jimin had no interest in pursuing a line of acquisition like his father, he could not ignore that many of his councillors did. Deeming it as the late emperor's unfinished legacy, General Lee had proceeded to repeatedly mention the idea, his proposals becoming more outlandish than the last.

    Like the frayed ends of his eunuch disguise, Jimin's patience had started to wear thin.

    "He has no business laying a finger on you," Jimin growled, his irritation renewed. "I thought I made that clear to everyone. Where is he? I will see to it that he-"

    "Slow down, Your Majesty!" Zeren called. He winced as he manoeuvred himself to face Jimin who was already at the door. "Before you go rushing off, I deserved to be punished."

    "What?" Jimin's eyes widened. "What are you talking about?"

    "It was punishment for my failure to protect you."

    Jimin blinked.

    "These bruises... these cuts..." Zeren lowered his head in shame. "They battered me within an inch of my life to mirror the wounds you sustained. Wounds that you shouldn't have received had I done my job properly."


    "No," Zeren cut him off. "I know what you're going to say but what they did was right." He placed a hand on top of his heart. "I am your bodyguard, Your Majesty. I pledged to be your shield. I should have been there to protect you when it happened." His eyes flickered as he spotted the yellowish bruise near Jimin's chin. His voice was heavy with guilt as he mentioned, "You shouldn't have gotten hurt under my watch. You shouldn't have gotten that bruise at all..." Suddenly, Zeren fell to his knees.

    Jimin ran to him. "Zeren-!"

    "Forgive me, Your Majesty!" Zeren crouched down so that his forehead was pressed against the floor. "I have failed you."

    Jimin was dumbfounded.

    A long time ago, Jimin had once bowed to Zeren in the same manner, imploring his friend to swap water duty with him so that he could have more rest.

    "I'll do it if you beg," a young Zeren had teased. "And if you'll be my lackey for a week."

    Desperate and naïve, Jimin had complied willingly. It was only when he discovered Zeren had tricked him that he vowed to one day make Zeren do the same.

    "There's no way I'll ever beg!" Zeren impishly replied when Jimin swore at him. "You'll never make me, Chim."

    The young emperor stared at his friend now.

    There was no triumph in seeing Zeren brought to his knees. Jimin didn't feel the satisfaction he imagined he would. Instead, all it brought was an emptiness created by their differences. The realisation that, in the end, Jimin was emperor while Zeren was nothing. Despite being close in proximity, Jimin had never felt as far away to Zeren as he did at that moment. And he despised it.

    "Get up."

    Against his advisors' counsel, Jimin had kept Zeren close. He granted Zeren status, promoted him as his bodyguard and announced that he was free to roam the palace as he pleased. Jimin had tried everything to balance Zeren's fortunes so that it matched his. It was the only way he could cling to the fantasy that he and Zeren were still equal; that they were still the same; that he was still Chim, the boy from the Temple. Without knowing, Jimin had come to depend on Zeren as his tether to the past. He had come to believe that if Zeren ceased calling him by his name then the person he was would cease to exist as well.

    "I said, get up," Jimin repeated when Zeren remained stubbornly glued to the ground. "That is an order."

    Jimin noticed Zeren stiffen at his tone. He kept his head hung in shame as he kneeled upright.

    "What are you waiting for?" Jimin snapped, "Must I repeat myself?"

    "I'm sorry," Zeren replied in embarrassment. He gestured to his legs and Jimin noticed them quivering. "I have no strength in my legs, so..." He reached out his hand and Jimin rolled his eyes as he helped Zeren to his feet.

    "Thanks, Your Majesty."

    Jimin was about to correct Zeren when he remembered his wounds. The young emperor pursed his lips. As much as it irked him to hear Zeren address him formally, guilt overwhelmed him more.

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    It was his fault that Zeren was punished.

    Had Jimin not hesitated in fighting, Zeren wouldn't have had to endure a beating he didn't deserve. He had been too obstinate. While fighting the thugs, Jimin had clung to his old principles; had been too merciful, and perhaps had even acted selfishly. He had fought as Chim, a naïve altruist when he should have fought as Jimin, a decisive ruler.

    "He is a hybrid. A hybrid that must remain humble so that his kingdom will thrive. If not, that kingdom will crumble."

    Jimin smiled wearily as he recalled his mother's words. Perhaps it is time I choose one side over the other? He pondered. Wavering between two worlds is dangerous. If I stay as I am now, I will be the one to crumble.
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