The group reached the Black Square at twilight the next day. Black square was the southern biggest town. The property had been withheld by the government from private possessors and was turned into the primary manufacturing area of the kingdom.
Meiyue rode beside Yuzhe into the town-square. They had separated from the rest of the group. Meiyue told the soldiers to look at the other side of town for a place to deposit their horses while she and Yuzhe searched for a place to stay. Xiaonu had stopped clinging to her and now sat viewing the buildings that lined the street.
From a two-building forge came the consecutive clangs of hammer as blacksmiths covered in soot worked by a blazing furnace. Next to it was an old-looking locksmith workshop. At the right Meiyue admired the crafts of a dozen workers gathered around pottery wheels. It was getting dark but they showed no sign of retiring yet. Soon the street was light up by red paper lanterns that hung from each shop.
"Not much has changed," Yuzhe said next to her. "We should hurry and find a place to stay first." Meiyue nodded an agreement and they both urged their horses forward. Yuzhe was adopted by uncle Liping in the south. Looking at him she wondered what sort of memory this place would take him to.
From what Meiyue learned, the mass production led the south to slower development because the citizens were mostly laborers who worked for the income of the state. Unlike in the north, not many could afford their own business and choose to stay in the south. Those who did either had relations with some officials to back them up or they simply did not want to move. Yuzhe's family was one of former case.
They came upon a huge printing house, brightened up with a reddish glow of lamps. Across from it is a four-story building with a signboard printed with the word "Inn" in fainted strokes. Just like the many buildings here, there were cracks along the front pillars and on the walls throughout the structure. Through the entrance of the inn, you could see the ceiling worn by leaks of water and a musty smell erupted from the place.
Meiyue caught Yuzhe looking at her, probably questioning if this place was passable. They had been trotting since dusk and this, actually, was the only inn she saw. There might be better accommodations if they searched more but night was falling and they were exhausted from the long travel.
"I guess this will do," she said, glancing at Xiaonu. The girl was already half dozing on the horseback, her hands wrapped loosely around Meiyue's waist.
"I'll ask if they have rooms." Yuzhe slid down his stallion and went into the inn's poorly lit lobby to speak with a clerk.
Meiyue shook Xiaonu awake before getting down from the mare. Mud splashed onto her robe and she nearly stumbled from numbness of her legs. Meiyue sighed upon seeing her own mud-caked dress. She guessed the differences between the north and south even came down to the condition of the street itself. The road was jerky, the stone slabs paved onto it fractured and broken at some areas, causing water to stay within and eventually formed mud from daily travel.
Meiyue inhaled the humid air deep. Metallic tang wafted through the breeze, mixed with the scent of ink and paper. Meiyue looked to the end of the road and saw that most service buildings belonging to the government, like the pottery workshop and printing house, were still open for business. Workers roamed the streets into and fro their working places. Others were pulling wagons that jerked on the pathway. About three blocks away from where she was, a woman carrying a yoke on her shoulders halted when a man approached. She appeared to be selling something to him as he handed her some cash. The woman in return spoke to him and they said a few more words before the man threw what he purchased into one of the woman's baskets. The woman cowered when he was clearly shouting at her, drawing some attention to the ruckus.
"Princess, where are you going?" Xiaonu asked, still on the horse.
Meiyue passed the reins of Yuzhe's horse to her. "Stay here," she told her before going to the scene.
The man was still yelling at woman when she got closer. Meiyue realized he wasn't her kingdom's people. The accent, the appearance. A kokurenian.
"Sir, I'm not trying to get more of your money. I really don't have change," the woman pleaded.
They both turned to Meiyue when she approached. "Is there some problem?" She looked between them then to the content of the baskets. They were red and green apples, freshly plucked Meiyue suspected.
The woman came to her and sighed. "Miss, do you have any spare change? Please help me."
Meiyue smiled at her mildly and took out her pouch. "Here you go."She handed her some coins. The woman accepted it and tried to give the man, who was staring at Meiyue as if they were an old rival.
"Well, there's your change." Meiyue gestured to the coins.
He scoffed. "Changed my mind." Meiyue's glare prevented him from walking away. She already had been kidnapped once. She was not afraid of them anymore.
She reached and took out the apple he just threw, its juice making her hand sticky. She held it to his face. "Buy what you damaged."
"I don't need some crappy apples." He pushed it away and instead grabbed her wrist. "Though I might buy something else," he said to her with a smug.
Outraged, Meiyue took the apple with her other hand and smashed it in his face. "Insolent fool!" she bellowed, snatching her hand away. "If only you savages aren't here to poison our country!"
He clutched his nose and swore. "You little!" He lunged toward her with a fist. The woman beside her gasped just as a figure flew to the scene, grabbed the man's outreached hand and threw him to the ground. A hand yanked Meiyue backwards the last second before she was hit.
"What's going on?" Yuzhe exclaimed beside her now. His hand was still clasped around her arm. The cloaked newcomer was now sitting on the man, binding his hands behind his back. People began to gather around.
"Gentleman, you should never raise a hand to a lady under all circumstances," the figure said. When the guy below him stopped struggling, he released his arms and stood. "Are you alright, miss?" he asked Meiyue, nonchalant by the other man running away.
"Yes, I am," said Meiyue and searched his face, but it was shadowed by the hood of his cloak. He dismissed the crowd to their activities and paid the woman with the apples before turning back to them.
Yuzhe finally released her arm. She asked the man, "Who are you?"
The figure seemed to regard her for a small pause before he said, "My my, how could I have not known." He pushed the hood down his shoulders, revealing an angular face with light brown eyes. His chestnut hair was trimmed short at his neck, an easy smile at his lips.
Meiyue watched as he dropped to one knee before her. "It's an honor to meet you again, Your Highness," he said. "I am Nishiki Kenshin, governor of the southern city."
Meiyue and her group instead were offered to stay in Kenshin's manor for the duration of the trip. He was able to convince her to stay over the fact that the city more or less did not provide better accommodations than the inn Yuzhe found.
The manor, located at the eastern side of the town, was a cluster of one-story ivory structures with dark brown roofs scattering throughout a grand gray stone garden. The household was built once again not long ago depicting the architecture from the Daifuku Empire after the previous one was wrecked by a great fire that took place five years ago. The former southern governor lost his life in that incident, and Nishiki Kenshin took office soon later.
After they reached the manor, Kenshin dispatched some of his men to fetch Baotong and his party. An elegant woman came to escort Meiyue and Xiaonu to their lodging, which was a separate building that offered a pleasant view of the courtyard.
The ladies ravished in a warm bath and then got dressed into fresh garments that had been delivered to them by the same maid. Not long after they settled into their room, Kenshin had requested for supper to be taken together.
The room they were to dine in was nicely decorated with some paintings and a beautiful tapestry of a natural scenery hung on the wall across the paper-screen door. A traditional square lamp was fastened to the ceiling, illuminating the space in a gentle glow.
Kenshin sat at the head of the table while Meiyue occupied the other end. Yuzhe and Xiaonu too were invited and they sat across each other. Soon food was served. Meiyue dreaded to find that half of the dishes consists of raw fish.
"I must say," Kenshin started while the servants spread out the food. "I am very surprised to see you here unannounced, Your Highness. I would have personally escorted you here if I knew."
Meiyue withdrew a wary look from a plate."No please, you can address me as Meiyue," she said. "I have been formulating ways to escape the formality of the palace."
The mayor looked amused. "Very well, Meiyue." He turned to Yuzhe. "And he is?"
The princess accepted a small bowl from a servant. "He is my trusted friend," she said, smiling at Yuzhe.
"I am Li Yuzhe." He extended a hand toward Kenshin. "I work in a stable now in the north, but my family was originally from the south."
The mayor shook his hand. "Then I have met another senior who have seen more of this city than I have."
Meiyue said to Kenshin, "I haven't expected that you would recognize me." She only had a vague memory of seeing him in the palace.
"There are none other who possesses a beauty like you," he said with a playful wink. It certainly made him look younger than he actually was.
Meiyue chuckled and waved him off.
It had only been a few years since Kenshin became the first kokurenian ever to have been selected as mayor. His rise to power had nothing to do with dishonest relationships behind the facade. Meiyue heard rumors that he was an illegitimate son of a kokurenian diplomat and a lady of the court, but chose carefully what to trust.
While they dined, Meiyue felt a betrayal when both Yuzhe and Xiaonu seemed to actually enjoy the seafood. She could barely stomach another slice of raw fish, and resolved to feast solely upon the tofu soup and rice.
"So Meiyue, what brings you to the south?" Kenshin asked awhile later.
Yuzhe tried to pass her another slice of salmon, probably thinking she couldn't reach. Meiyue gave him a look and he understood. "I wanted to see how it is like here," she said. "The south has only been an image in my head and I hear that it is quite different from the north."
Kenshin considered, before continuing, "About what you said out there earlier. It seems that you're aware of the kokurenians' crimes increasing in our state."
She exchanged a look with Yuzhe. "Yes, I found that out on a rather personal level."
The mayor raised a brow. When Meiyue did not elaborate he instead said, "Some of them may be mischievous crime-makers, but do you know, princess, that some came to us with a bargain?"
Xiaonu and Yuzhe looked up to him. Meiyue set her chopsticks down. "What bargain?"
"Goods," he stated. "Fine quality merchandise, smuggled from their empire to offer us for sanctuary." He indicated to the princess. "Your attires, for instance, is made from a rare type of cloth that is not found much in our country. Most of the bargains go to the officials or merchants, who sell them at a high price to renowned retail workshops, which in turn supply the customers. And those who can afford such aren't regular commoners."
Meiyue stared down at her turquoise hanfu, not believing what she heard. She remembered the time she was captured. She remembered Hueha, the little girl, and those who had fell victim before her and those who weren't fortunate enough to escape. So he was telling her, that all long, part of the government had been helping the ones who hurt its people just because they were convinced of some expensive items.
When she spoke again, her throat was thick with remorse. "The people suffered just so we could have better things to use?" Suddenly her appetite was gone. She couldn't bring herself to look at Yuzhe, or even her own maid.
Xiaonu reached for her hand. "It's not your fault, princess."
"It's always been like this, isn't it?" Meiyue turns to Yuzhe. He wore a taunt expression that sent more shame down her throat. She knew he didn't fault her, but she couldn't deny anything either.
"I'm afraid to say that yes, it is," Kenshin said across from her. He was now serious as he added, "I couldn't accept it myself when I first held office. But some, like me, are waiting until we can fault them of a crime they commit. As you see, I sometimes patrol the streets alone to make sure nobody is hurt. That is what I can at least do for the people here." His fair eyes went hold Meiyue's. "You do not need to condemn yourself, Meiyue. Corruption has always been the other side of any government since the beginning of it."
"He's right, " Yuzhe joined, though she told herself not to take the comfort for granted. Meiyue nodded and they resumed their meal.
She was thankful for their assurance. But she was the offspring of the king, who was the head of the government. And governments were supposed to be for the people. If corruption existed long before she knew and couldn't change it, then Meiyue decided that she would focus on what she could do to help, for now.