The Golden Tortoise Beetles
They dress in [dried blood | orange juice] stains, but not for the emperor. When he visits their [treehouse | forest], they flit onto his [leather jacket | bare shoulders] as a cloud of winged doubloons, gold and glinting with sunlight. Their colors change in response to unexpected [windfalls | downpours] and sometimes for no reason at all. The emperor believes their coats outshine dawn just for him. He rests on a [rocking chair | mossy rock] and tells stories to them because his heart has grown weary from [running | ruining] his land. He explains how his people endeavor to [overthrow | comfort] him, and [the politicians | the children] struggle to stay awake. It is inevitable, he sighs, his palm against his chin, the end of [his reign | his world] is nigh, and he hears the almost inaudible buzz of beetles gathering [Richters | thunderclouds]. But because these beetles are unseen, faraway, and elsewhere, he misconstrues them as not his beetles—the ones right here, listening to him [speak | lie], grazing on [his hair | chrysanthemums], who would never [sing | cry] so vulgarly. The ceiling darkens and crescendos; those other furious beetles have arrived, and they strike. Down crashes a deluge of [warheads | memories]. He’s on his knees now, which are wet in a puddle of his [blood | tears], his head bent, and everything congregates into a shadow that looms over him and refuses to [forgive | forget] him. I’m sorry, the emperor says, he knows too many things have died for [him | nothing]. However, countless generations of golden tortoise beetles have passed; the only way to survive is to [kill | feed] the guilt. He says he would beg for [understanding | lenience], but look at his flying jewels, is it not [wiser | kinder] to admire their beauty? He says this while his body trembles, while unable to even glance at his prized possessions. Finally, he closes his eyes in [defiance | surrender]. The shadow cannot experience feelings like [pity | grief] because its mind is darkness, but a turbulence roars in its belly, and it joins hands with the sky. It spins the earth from [day | night] to [night | day], then swallows the stars and the golden tortoise beetles and last the emperor in a sleep streaked with [bruises | dreams]. The shadow buries itself deep underground as [orange peels | bloody scabs] and waits for [death | rebirth].
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