143 Where Wildflowers Bloom Pt.2

    "It was not your fault that I was hurt," Jimin said as he pulled away from his thoughts.

    Zeren looked like he was about to protest.

    "I was careless," Jimin continued, "I should have anticipated that my opponent would employ underhanded tricks."

    "You were outnumbered." Zeren was quick to defend. "From the beginning, the odds were against you." He paused and scrunched his lip. "But the number of opponents doesn't matter. You're an excellent fighter, Your Majesty. Why did you hold back?"

    "I did not."

    "No." Jimin was startled by Zeren's sharp tone. The imperial guard narrowed his eyes accusingly. "You did."

    "I assure you, I-"

    "Under self-defence, it is right for you to fight back," Zeren suddenly recited, forcing Jimin to listen. "If enemies cannot be reasoned with words, communicate with them through one's sword. Isn't that what the monks taught us?"

    "And communicate with my sword I did," Jimin insisted. "You were not there, Zeren, but I did fight."

    "Well, perhaps you did but not to the best of your ability." He limped toward a stool as Jimin disappeared behind the screen. "Word has spread around the palace that an imperial guard allowed three thugs to beat him up. Before that, he danced with the aggressor rather than duelled." He hummed in displeasure as he addressed Jimin's shadow. "Care to clarify?"

    "I was trying to avoid resorting to violence for as long as possible," Jimin answered, his voice hitching slightly as he changed into his imperial attire.

    "And in exchange for your hesitance, you tarnished the honour of your imperial guards and sustained injuries in the process."

    "What would you have me do?" Jimin asked with a hint of annoyance.

    There was a pause.

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    "Fight properly."

    "And then what? Slay them as if their lives do not matter? Rob their family of a husband, a father, a brother, a son?" Jimin emerged from the screen in his crimson and gold imperial robes. His expression was grave as he spoke, "Those men may have been scum, but they were living beings like you and I." He shuddered as he recalled the guttural sound the drunkard made before he was silenced forever. "They did not need to die..."

    "I know you disapprove of my methods," Zeren murmured, "but I did what I had to do to protect you." He rose to his feet. "Unlike you and I, those drunkards were ready to murder innocent people. Men like that do not deserve mercy."

    Jimin let out a sharp hmph.

    "You disagree with me."

    "Of course, I do." He pushed past Zeren to get to his desk, where a mountain of papers lay waiting for him. "All life is precious regardless of its sins. You should know that as well as I."

    "You're too soft, Your Majesty," Zeren scolded. He watched as Jimin sat down. "I worry your reluctance to take another's life will lead to your downfall."

    "Our kingdom is already filled with so much suffering," Jimin countered. "People die every day because of disease, poverty and even man. Are you suggesting that I must add to it as well?"

    "No, as your shield, I will ensure that you'll never have to do so personally." Zeren winced as Jimin dropped a pile of heavy books to one side. "As emperor, you need not wield a blade as I will do it for you. I will be your extra pair of hands. But what I cannot do is hold onto something only you can."

    "Oh?" Jimin met eyes with him. "And what would that be?"

    "Our kingdom."

    Jimin looked away.

    "You must do what you can to keep yourself alive," Zeren continued, ignoring Jimin's eye roll. "The people's lives are in your hands."

    "You need not remind me," the young emperor grumbled, "I am already aware that my life is not my own."

    Zeren frowned. As much as he detested hounding Jimin, he knew it was his job to do so. After witnessing his friend bruised and bloodied, Zeren realised that he had grown complacent. He had forgotten that Jimin was first and foremost his emperor.

    "Had your weapon been a spear would you have fought differently?"

    Jimin shook his head. "No, be it a sword or a spear the outcome would have been the same." He scowled when he discovered another pile of papers under his desk. "I may be more skilled with a spear, but it means nothing if I cannot bring myself to harm another."

    "Even if Gyuri's life was on the line?"

    Jimin flinched.

    Noticing his reaction, Zeren bolted upright. "So, you would have reacted differently..."

    He peered at Jimin as he waited for the string of denials to erupt from his lips. Normally, Jimin would tell him to stop being foolish. He would say things like he didn't care for Gyuri; that she was a scammer and a thief and that all women were sirens waiting to lure men to their demise. Zeren waited for all of this to be articulated in Jimin's eloquent speech but to his astonishment, none came.

    Zeren blinked.

    "Advisor Kim had come in looking for you earlier," Zeren casually mentioned. If I am right, then... He observed as Jimin returned to flicking through the papers as if he hadn't faltered a few moments ago. "And he asked me something peculiar."

    Jimin hummed as if feigning disinterest. "What did he want?"

    "He asked if I knew the wench that captivated your heart."

    Zeren noticed Jimin flinch again.

    "What did you say?" Jimin asked.

    "I told him the truth."

    "And what is the truth exactly?"

    "I think you already know without me saying it aloud."

    Jimin stopped what he was doing as he regarded his friend with a wary stare.

    "I didn't mention her name if that is what you're wondering." Zeren smiled playfully. "Advisor Kim kept pressuring me to tell him, but my lips were sealed." He cocked his head to the side. "Imagine how he would've reacted if I told him it was one of his household maids..."

    Jimin's ears turned pink. "...How did you find out?"

    "What? That you are enamoured with Gyuri?"

    Jimin looked away in embarrassment. Hearing his troublesome feelings put into words caused his chest to stir like it always did at the mention of her name.

    "You told me just now."


    "I had my suspicions before, but I wasn't certain." Zeren's smile was smug. "So, you do have romantic feelings for Gyuri." Zeren's grin widened as he stood on his feet. "She is the wench that occupies your heart and that's why you didn't fall for Mayu!"

    Jimin blushed furiously as Zeren relentlessly teased him.

    "What will you do now?" Zeren asked excitedly. "Will you tell her? Will you propose to her?"

    "Wha-?" Jimin was so startled that he accidentally knocked a pile of books off his desk. "Propose to her?" he repeated, wide-eyed. "Why would I propose to her? I cannot marry her!"

    "Well, sure you can," Zeren replied, unfazed. "You're emperor. You can marry anyone you want."

    "Zeren, it is precisely because I am emperor that I have to be careful with who I choose to be my empress. I cannot just marry anyone. It has to be someone who can rule by my side."

    "Then why can't it be Gyuri?"

    Jimin's heart skipped a beat.

    "You said before that you will only love one woman. Our kingdom needs an empress and Gyuri happens to be someone you are enamoured with, so why not make her your empress?"

    "It is more complicated than that," Jimin replied, his heart racing at the thought. "You forget that she is of low birth and I also have proposals from Huaxia and Nihon to consider. I cannot just ignore my duties to our kingdom in favour of these fickle emotions." Jimin shook his head as if it will aid in dissuading his heart. "No, what I feel for her right now is just a phase."

    "And what if it isn't?" Zeren challenged. "Your Majesty, I know that as emperor, you have to sacrifice a lot of things, but you can be selfish at least once. Gyuri may be of low birth, but you have the power to change that. If she is the one you desire, then make her yours. It is not a crime to love. Sometimes I think that residing in the Temple has made you selfless in the wrong ways. You never think about your happiness- only those of others."

    "Is that not the purpose of being emperor?" Jimin sardonically questioned. "To live for the people?" He glanced at the box his mother gave him. "And were you not lecturing me on my duty just now? Why should who I marry be any different to why I choose not to use my sword?"

    "Those matters are separate."

    "Well, I beg to differ." Jimin reached for the lacquered box and opened it. "Whatever choice I make will have a profound effect on the kingdom. Something as important as choosing who my empress will be must not be influenced by basely needs like desire or love." His eyes were mournful when he saw the contents of the box. Rice cakes. "Because whoever I choose will be condemned to share the same fate as I."

    Jimin bit into one slowly, each bite filled with thoughts of his mother and her lonesome predicament. The thought of his future empress ending up like her saddened him. Wouldn't it be kinder if he could suffer this fate alone? He offered the box to Zeren while deep in thought. Before Zeren could say anything, Jimin suddenly asked, "Tell me, do you know why wildflowers do not bloom indoors?"

    Zeren glanced at the wilting red and pink camellias that Jimin had locked eyes on. "Because they are out of their element?"

    "Precisely." Jimin got up and walked over to the other side of his quarters. "We pick flowers because we are enchanted by their beauty." His touch was delicate as he traced the head of a flower. "We bring them inside because they make lifeless places like the palace more welcoming. They bring colour. But wildflowers do not prosper indoors." As soon as he lifted his finger a petal fell. "They wither quickly because they do not belong here."

    Zeren was befuddled. "What are you trying to say?"

    "Gyuri is like a wildflower," Jimin said softly. "She thrives best when she is in her element. If I force her in, she will eventually wither, suffocated by the burden of the palace air." He stared at the wilting camellias ruefully. "I do not want this for her. I do not want to be the cause of her misery."

    Zeren hobbled over to Jimin so that they were side by side. "But what if it's the exact opposite?" He peeled back the withering flowers to reveal a single camellia in full bloom. Despite the unfavourable conditions, the flower in the vase stood proud and tall. "How do you know if Gyuri won't be happy here in the palace?"

    Jimin gaped at the flower thoughtfully. "I do not."

    Zeren grinned.

    Jimin watched in puzzlement as Zeren procured tattered garments from the inside of his imperial robes. He offered them to Jimin with a determined look in his eyes.

    "Then, why don't we go and find out?"
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