19 Chapter Eighteen

It was the day of the festival. Hundreds of carts and wagons rolled through the gates of the divisions with food supplies and accommodations for approximately one-fourth of the whole populace who would be joining the celebration. Crops were harvested and brought in by merchants. Wholesales rates were soaring high up the clouds. The guards took the preparation of setting up furniture and tents while the servants scuttled about for table-making and food. They needed to complete their task by dusk, which was when the party would begin.

The commotion going all around rattled the Junqian's office as he sat behind his desk, hunched over a report regarding the overall bills for the prep. It wasn't only him. All the civil service workers were required to work as any day, and the only change was that they could retire at lunchtime and wait for the festival. Junqian brooded over the fact that the citizens received a holiday while the slave Division was barely ever off.

The advisor looked up the paper he held to Yuzhe at his left. His assistant was leaning on his elbow, a record book spread on his desk, but his eyes were somehow on the inkpot nearby.

"Yuzhe," Junqian called. When he clearly didn't hear him the advisor set the report down and spoke louder.

Yuzhe turned. "Sorry, what is it?"

"Are you alright?" he asked. "You've been spacing out."

Yuzhe straightened, seeming to be shaking his thoughts away. "It's nothing. I was just thinking a little," he said and brought his focus back to the book.

He had been like that ever since after he came on the first day. During that day, Junqian thought he'd never seen anyone who'd worked more seriously than him. But on the next day, Yuzhe appeared almost distracted. Junqian caught him staring at nothing a couple of times and worried if the job was wearing him out out of boredom.

"I'm sorry you're still stuck here on this day," the advisor said. "Let's grab some drinks after we get this done."

Yuzhe agreed with a nod. Junqian picked up a clipped file atop a stack of documents when he remembered something. "There's one more thing," he said to Yuzhe. "I'd like you to be the one supervising this section of the banquet where the common citizens will be feasting."

He pointed to the window behind him with his thumb. The commoner's tents were separated from the aristocrats and were established on the open pavement of the Second Division. The sheer size of it could handle at least five thousand people, excluding gardens and porches.

"We had a brawl broken out last year you see between some drunkards and it led to some severe damages," he continued. "The guards weren't enough to stop them apparently. But I doubt any of those would've had happened if you were there." He clasped his fingers against each other close to his nose, pleading. "We really need some of your muscles. Of course, you can still enjoy the festival. I'm only asking in case if there's any problem."

Yuzhe replied soon after. "Sure thing. I'll watch out for problems."

"Thanks a lot," he said earnestly. "You saved me from having to compromise with unreasonable compensation."

The incident last year wasn't something he'd like to recall. Good thing that it wasn't going to happen again because anyone who would challenge Yuzhe to drunk combats was a fool. He'd experienced that first hand.

Instead, he couldn't wait to indulge in the expensive liquors of the party.

~~~~~~~~

Meiyue stepped out of her room in the late morning. Xiaonu trailed from behind. Her musical instrument was taken by two soldiers earlier for necessary tuning and arrangement on the stage.

This year the performance will be presented in the trial court, a branch of the Ministry of Trial and Jury. The court itself was a circular arena where public trials were held for criminals charged with high treason before a massive audience. Meiyue hadn't witnessed one in all the eighteen years of her life, so it was resourceful to use the space for a different purpose.

Having nothing else to do but await the dreaded time, Meiyue figured it was best to keep herself distracted with something, less her mind started to come up with some troublesome ideas to escape her fate. She didn't want to think of it, yet it also didn't mean she'd fall hopelessly into the concept that she was sure her mother favored beyond anything else.

Destiny. Meiyue believed the only destiny that was hers was the one she wove with her own will.

Before she knew it she'd crossed over to the Second Division. The royal library came into view. It was the only structure painted white with dark tiled roofs. Not many knew that a four-year-old Meiyue was responsible for the paint. She had whined to the King that the previous usual brown color was way too gloomy for her comfort. (She had spent most of her childhood in the library, exploring illustrations of ghosts and romantic lands.)

Several guards bowed at her arrival as Meiyue entered the arch entrance. The smell of books instantly calmed her nerves. It was quiet save for a figure hastily arranging some books that were scattered on the table by the tall window.

"Anna," Meiyue called the librarian and approached her. "What's the rush?"

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Anna curtsied. "I am required to help with the preparation, Your Highness," she said in a high, melodic voice. "Is there any book you wish to get before I shut the library?"

Meiyue thought to seek solace in there and forgot that each building was to close by noon. Disheartened, she scanned the shelves at the left wall. Then a thought popped up.

The princess turned to the youthful librarian. "Do you have a spare key?" she asked.

Anna looked between her and Xiaonu. "Yes, I do, Your Highness."

"Can you give it to me?" Meiyue said. At Anna's look, she added, "I'm not a fan of parties, as you know. I'll be easily found out if I hide in my rooms. But I assure you no trouble will come to you. Please?"

Anna seemed uncertain. Her chestnut eyes reminded Meiyue so much of her mother, the previous librarian whose death grieved her for weeks.

"Very well, princess," Anna said. "But just for today. It can be my present for your birthday."

Meiyue smiled. The girl went to the counter and back with a big yellow key. "Thank you." Meiyue kept it in her chest pocket. With that, she could escape the banquet whenever she pleased. That was her destiny.

"Now I just lock this place up," Anna said. She pushed the last book into the shelf and dusted her hands to her green skirt.

Meiyue went to a nearby shelf and randomly took out a leather-bound book. Then together with Xiaonu, she exited.

They strolled to the outer fraction of the division. From the roofed walkway, she heard soldiers shouting to each other as they set up tents for the feast. About a dozen were structured and tied metal poles while more lay on the ground in a massive gray heap that fluttered in occasional breeze. The sooner they arranged the tents the faster tables and chairs could be brought out.

Meiyue carried on the porch, not knowing where she was going. Xiaonu trot beside her now. The girl's eagerness was so obvious that it played on her face.

Not long after they stepped out the shade, a guard was running toward their direction and stopped at a respectful distance.

He bowed on one knee. "Your Highness, these are meant for you," he said, holding out a thin book with a letter above it.

"For me?" Puzzled, Meiyue moved to accept the items. "From whom?"

The guard retreated his hand so fast as if touching her would burn him. "From the southern governor, Your Highness."

Kenshin?

"Thank you. You can go," she told him. When he was away Meiyue saw her name written on the envelope of the letter. She only hoped Kenshin wasn't sending her some alarming news. She took out the inner paper and read:

Your Highness, Princess Meiyue,

I would like to express my deepest regret for not being able to participate in the celebration. As the governor, I couldn't leave certain duties behind that concern of my people. However, I am sure you will still be the most beautiful lady among the entire court even without my attendance to see. Your beauty and compassion shall never be forgotten, as well as Advisor Zhou. It is my wish that we could have one another's company once again for tea sometime in the future.

Your faithful servant,

Nishiki Kenshin

Meiyue relaxed. Xiaonu made a strange face after she withdrew her head from the page. The princess was about to fold the letter and place it back in the envelope when her maid said, "Princess, look."

Meiyue turned the paper over. There was another short paragraph at the bottom of the page. She didn't understand that man's intention.

I'd like to ask you for a small favor. There's a letter attached to the last page of that book you must be holding. I want you to hand it over to the Peacock Madonna. You'll recognize her once you see her. She will be one of the banquet honored guests. And as for the book, please give it to Yuzhe. It's a friendship gift.

The two exchanged a glance. Meiyue opened the last page of the blue book and indeed saw another envelope tucked within. She resisted an urge to browse over the booklet.

"Who would be the Peacock Madonna? I have never heard of it even from gossips," Xiaonu remarked.

Meiyue, on the other hand, was glad for a little entertainment. "We'll find out soon. Come on, let's go pick my dress."

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