Junqian exited his office. Moving into the Department of Finance had really left a mark on him. Endless paperwork was pushed onto him, reports yet to proofread and other documents that required his consent before putting to work. All because the Department Chief had granted Junqian authority during his absence.
Junqian headed out of the Department. It was late noon. Most of the administrators next to his office had been away for luncheon while he was still marching to the throne room on empty stomach.
Jianguo, his father, had previously assigned him with a task of summoning the King for another meeting. The conference took place every once in seven days for the ministers to share and update matters of the states, typically within the presence of the King to grand consent to some major changes. Only five days had passed since the last meeting. Junqian could only guess there was to be some pressing matters to discuss later, though the growl of his stomach was somewhat also an urgent matter at the moment.
The throne room was opened. Junqian saw a couple of ministers still flustering up the staircase. They were just starting to prepare for the assembly. He was not late it seemed. Junqian headed to the King's office. It was a reddish brown structure not far from the throne room. And there, he found the King pacing the length of the pavilion situated in the garden nearby.
Several guards stood watch. They bowed to Junqian when he approached. He dismissed them to their station before stepping onto the pavilion.
"Your Majesty," he said. The King had his back turned to him. "The conference is awaiting your arrival."
The King paced to the edge of pavilion, overlooking the garden blooming with orange marigolds. "What have they to discuss?"
"I'm afraid I wasn't informed, Your Majesty," Junqian answered.
The King spoke again after a pause. "Has Meiyue returned?"
"No, Your Majesty. But I can send her a message if you desire." It had been four days since Meiyue departed. He often wondered what the princess might be confronting in the south. He had barely been there himself, so he understood if her father would be worried.
"Let her stay for as long as she wants," said the King. Junqian doubted if the Queen shared his tolerance.
He went closer beside the King. Sometimes it was easier to think the sovereign as his other father. "You needn't worry, Your Majesty. Meiyue also has Yuzhe by her side."
The King's brows furrowed by a fraction. "I don't understand how she managed to know him. Who is that man?"
Junqian only remarked on the second question. "I hear that he owns a renowned stable. And that he is often summoned into the First Division for his horses."
The King crossed his hands behind his back. Junqian thought there was a strange sentiment in his gaze. "It's not often we see someone of his skill," he said, lost in thoughts. Then a minute later he turned and stepped down the pavilion.
Junqian followed him to the throne room. When they were ascending the last step onto the top the King paused. His voice only audible to him. "After they return, question that man whether he desires a workplace within the palace."
Caught off guard, the first thing Junqian could think of was Meiyue. Then he bowed to the King's back. "Yes, Your Majesty."
The town was busier today. City folks buzzed the market fair as Meiyue sauntered through. Whiff of fish and raw meat wafted in the air and the princess quickened her steps to past the section, dragging Xiaonu along with their intertwined arms.
They had used up all the silvers yesterday with the purchases as well as spreading the leftover cash to the people. As Meiyue expected it was nowhere enough to supply to all of the families. Having her intention achieved anyway, she thought to spend the rest of the their stay on shopping. The constant anxiety of being found out stopped her from strolling freely in the north.
Xiaonu marveled at a furniture workshop where several sculptors sat on the terrace carving woods. Their crafts were put on display inside the store. Meiyue let her maid lead her into the shop. Yuzhe and the guards followed, also seemingly interested.
Figurines ranged from towering deities, that looked rather frightening, to enchanted mythical creatures of dragons and phoenixes soaring above infernos. At the other building of the shop Meiyue saw furniture carved out from the same dark-colored woods. She moved to a section where smaller sculptures were placed upon shelves. Yuzhe came beside her when she took up a carved bunny holding a carrot.
"It's cute." He took up another figurine of a beckoning cat.
Meiyue examined the sculpture. It was smooth and lacquered, carved from a different type of white wood. "Maybe I should send it as a gift to enlighten the Queen's mood." Of course, she wasn't being entirely sarcastic. "Though it might be a cute souvenir for Zhonghong."
Yuzhe turned the cat in his hand. "I don't think she likes these kinds of things."
"Oh." Meiyue stared at the bunny, thinking how would it be like to have someone who knows her preferences well too.
Xiaonu exclaimed something to a man in the shop. He was gesturing a sculpture of a man in formal attires nearby, and asked the girl something. Xiaonu seemed hesitant.
Meiyue went to the her maid. "What's wrong?"
The sculptor all of the sudden looked at the princess with profound eyes. He set down a block of wood to the floor before coming to circle Meiyue like a hawk. The princess was glad when Yuzhe came.
"Upon your consent, miss, I would do a sculpture of you," the man said, not taking his eyes from her face. "Your beauty shall never be missed and your image will flood the kingdom. What do you say?"
Meiyue backed from his stare. "I um...thank you. Why don't you sculpt my maid instead?"
"Really princess?" Xiaonu asked behind her, clearly delighted.
"Of course." She moved away just as the man ushered Xiaonu to sit at the terrace near the other sculptors. Then he began to rummage the store for bigger wood blocks.
"I was starting to want to see a sculpture of you. Too bad you didn't agree," Yuzhe said as they continue to wander the store.
Meiyue brushed a finger across a delicate-looking carved tree. "It was just propaganda."
"Do you think so?"
It might be her own biased dislike of statues but she said anyway, "Yes."
"But you are beautiful."
Meiyue froze, heat creeping to her cheeks. "Let's look have a look at other stores," she said, not meeting his eyes. When most people complimented her looks she never thought much of it as more than flattery. She didn't understand why she was feeling differently in this case.
Yuzhe followed her quietly out the store. Xiaonu was siting a wooden stool, maintaining a frozen expression. She glanced at them sideways. Meiyue watched the sculptor seated on the ground. His nimble hand carving Xiaonu's large eyes into the wood block with a chisel. She may not like the craft much but the skill still amazed her.
"How long would it take to complete?" she asked the man.
He started to carve Xiaonu's other eye. "Mostly about several days. But I'll try to keep it short, miss."
"I'll come and get you later on," Meiyue said to her maid, who beamed and nodded. "Let's go," she said to Yuzhe. The guards came out after them. Baotong gave Xiaonu a grin before he caught up with the princess.
"Is there any place that you want to visit?" Meiyue asked when they reached a crossroad.
Yuzhe considered. "Maybe. But you might not like it."
The princess raised a brow.
In the end, he led her to a blacksmith workshop. The ring of hammer was deafening when they entered. The shop was warm. Meiyue felt deeply thankful for the lost of noise when the workers paused their work to introduce some of the weapons on display to the men.
Boys would always be boys Meiyue thought. She stood where Yuzhe left her, at a section where the wall hung with different parts of armors. This workshop was much bigger than the one she saw on her first day here. Multiple furnaces blazed. Yuzhe was speaking with a smith at the sword section while the guards crowded around some smiths explaining something about spears.
A customer came into the workroom. Meiyue wanted to call upon the smiths to tell them, but the client didn't seem to need any recommendation. He headed straight toward the bow section, near where she was standing. The princess watched in curiosity as the man examined two bows that looked identical. Then he reached for the other bows on the stand. Meiyue caught a flash of something dark at his wrist, almost hidden by the sleeve of his shirt. She pretended to be interested on the display, trying to get a another glance at his hand. Thankfully he held out his arm to reach for a bow on the highest level. His sleeve fell slack.
Unmistakably it was a tattoo of a bird with outstretched wings. The exact same one she saw from the sketch Kenshin showed.
Meiyue casually walked to where Yuzhe was. The smith greeted her when she joined.
"Would you tell us more about the armors over there?" Meiyue asked the smith. When he was out of earshot she whispered to Yuzhe, "Wrist." Her directed her eyes toward the man holding the bow.
Meiyue listened to the smith elaborating about the materials to refine the armor parts while Yuzhe stole a quick glance at the guy nearby. He nodded slightly as confirmation.
"Why don't you tell our friends about it?" Meiyue said with a casual smile, indicating to the armors.
Understanding her message, Yuzhe nodded. "They will love it," he said to the smith before walking to Baotong and the others. The smith went to assist the man with the bows. Meiyue realized with a dread that he was also getting a pair of double-edged blades.
After the purchase, the man stalked out from the store. Meiyue and the group exited shortly after. The man was still in sight.
"You two will go after that man," the princess told Baotong and another guard. "If anything happens, one of you will come and report me. I'll be in the manor." They both bowed before quickly catching up with the target.
Meiyue watched them until they disappeared around a corner. Then she turned to one of the three remaining soldiers. "Head back to where my maid is and bring her home before night."
"Yes, Your Highness," he said and went.
"The mayor will want to know about this," Yuzhe said. "Come on."
When they reached the manor, one of the manservants informed them that Kenshin was out meeting an official from the north. And that he did not know when the mayor would return.
The princess paced the length of the courtyard, restless. She had demanded to see Kenshin at once after he returned, but so far dusk was falling and there was still no sign of him. She didn't know how far Baotong managed to follow or if they'd lost their target. Soon Yuzhe appeared and asked if she wanted earlier supper. Before she could answer there was someone barging into the garden.
"Your Highness," Baotong rasped, out of his breath. He was sweating all over and leaned on his knee. Meiyue and Yuzhe quickly over went to him.
"Is your friend still following him?" the princess demanded.
Baotong nodded, still breathing hard. "Yes. But there's a problem, Your Highness," he said, alarm clear in his voice. "Someone was murdered."