"I've never cared for you." Yu Zhen stood by the bedside of the dying Emperor with words as sharp as knives. Maybe that way, the man would go faster. Maybe then, he would not feel this ache in his heart.
The Emperor used to be tall and strong. A smack from him would send a boy flying to the floor. His breath was the snort of a dragon, and his roar of anger was like a trailblazing fire.
What exactly happened?
Who was this imposter on the bed? Thin and bones, the man was dressed in the same luxury and wealth as the Emperor. But this was not the Emperor. Yu Zhen refused to believe it. He refused to open his eyes to the truth that the man who once tormented his childhood was reduced to nothing.
"I…know," the Emperor breathed out. He opened his tired eyes, rimmed with wrinkles and darkness. His pale blue lips spread into a slight smile.
"Seeing me…in pain…" he heaved. "Must bring you joy."
The Emperor loudly coughed. His chest rattled like cages of trapped birds. The world was fleeting before his eyes. All the years of pain were finally catching up to him. Perhaps this was his punishment for all the sins he had committed in his lifetime.
He could not picture a day where his little boys were happy with him. The thought tore his fragile heart to pieces. It was too late to regret it. They had turned their backs on him, and now, the Emperor was all alone.
"You must know…" the Emperor murmured. "Seeing…you boys…in pain, never…made me happy."
Yu Zhen's fingers curled into fists. His jaw ticked.
"I was a horrible father," the Emperor mused. "But I loved you both."
The Emperor tilted his head. His neck and body shook with the small action. But he needed to see Yu Zhen one last time. He needed to see his pride and joy, dressed in all of his glory. The throne was meant for the oldest, but the youngest seized it without hesitation.
The tables had turned. Just as the Emperor had done it in his youth when he robbed the throne from his oldest brother.
"Especially you…" The Emperor muttered, "You, who resembles me most."
Yu Zhen scoffed. "It's a little too late for that confession."
The Emperor's smile widened. In normal circumstances, he would've been infuriated by the constant talk back. But his old age made him weak. He became more fond of Yu Zhen, realizing this boy was just trying to get attention from all the years of neglect. And he had found it in all of the right places—from his beloved friends to his darling Wangfei.
"You must know…" the Emperor whispered. "I have loved you since birth."
The Emperor wanted to reach a hand out to his son, but it was too late for that. "I was harsh on you…" he said and lightly coughed, "because I knew…it would make a man out of…you."
The Emperor's chest was caving in. It was difficult to breathe as if all of the air was sucked from his lungs. He let out a small groan of pain but forced his body to trudge on. He needed to. For the sake of a son who concealed his pain.
"I did not want you…to be as inferior as your father…" The Emperor squeezed his eyes shut. "I did not want the court to mock…you, for I always knew…you would one day take the throne."
"As if," Yu Zhen muttered with a roll of his eyes.
"No, boy!" The Emperor reached his hand out, his entire body shaking with the attempt. But he was able to grasp onto the fists of his son.
"I saw it when you were a baby… You have the eyes of a ruler, you've always had it."
Yu Zhen ground his teeth. "What a sorry excuse you are making for yourself."
The Emperor's smile became more tender. Despite his youngest son's anger, he did not shake the Emperor's hand away. He tightened his hold on the fists, even when his sore body ached in pain.
It was taking everything within him to stay awake. He knew that once he closed his eyes, he could never open it again. He had to say his last words to his youngest. He needed to. This boy needed it the most.
"Your mother only hated you…because you resembled me." The Emperor's grip tightened. "But I loved you dearly. Your pain was my pain."
Yu Zhen instantly attempted to pull away, but the Emperor hurriedly spoke on, "You must know, whenever I beat you, I tortured myself for it."
In Yu Zhen's rough struggle, the white sleeves of his father's nightgown rolled down. He stiffened. Ugly, protruding scars could be seen. Running down his father's thin, bony arms. They were everywhere, starting from his shoulders, all the way down to his wrists.
"Each time I hurt you, I hurt myself for it."
Yu Zhen yanked his hand away. He did not want to see it nor accept it. All this time, his father had held everything in like this.
"And you expect me to care now?" he viciously bit out. "Do you think I would pity an abusive man just because he hurts himself afterwards?"
The Emperor's face softened. His son was still suffering. After all these years, the hatred was still festing.
"You did this to yourself, the beatings, the scars, all of it. Don't you dare make yourself seem like the victim," Yu Zhen snarled out in a low, controlled voice. He would never take pity on this man, no matter what he says.
"Son, I don't want pity or sympathy..." the Emperor heaved out. "I want you to forgive yourself…to love yourself."
The Emperor's smile widened. "Please…live a life without regrets. Live a life that I couldn't have."
Yu Zhen shook his head. He did not have the time or patience to tolerate this pointless conversation.
"Please do not be tortured by the past anymore." The Emperor could feel his vision grow blurry. The expansive decorations on the ceilings were becoming a blob of color. He couldn't even see his own son anymore.
The Emperor struck out a trembling hand. His voice grew even more tired and high-pitched. He was on his last straw of life. And he was willing to give it to his beloved son.
And he had never felt more joy than when he felt a tight, unbearable grip on his hand. Even until the bitter end, his son was rough and cold. His son knew how weak and frail his father was, but held on with a painful grip as if bidding him farewell to the netherworld.
"Yu Zhen?" a soft, timid voice spoke from the corner of the room.
Yu Zhen's head snapped to the side. Li Xuyue had come out of the small library, but she was alone.
"Come…come…" The Emperor chuckled, but it sounded like whistles of the flute. He knew who it was. That gentle, reassuring voice, who would be spending the rest of her life with his son. The voice of his son's savior.
He heard her approaching footsteps. Soon, it came to a halt, presumably near his son.
"Don't let the doors hit you on your way to Diyu, Father," Yu Zhen calmly said. The address sounded foreign on this tongue.
The Emperor could finally leave without remorse. He was grateful and glad his son married so well, and would live so well. Yu Zhen would not have to bear the burden that he did not even wish his father goodbye.
"Son, please live a life without regrets…" The Emperor tilted his head towards the little Princess. "Please live a happy life with your Wangfei…Father wishes you eternal happiness."
And with that said, everything was set in stone. The world spun. Rain came down. Everything became a blur.
The Emperor's hand went limp.
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