The next morning, Meiyue assembled her little group to the courtyard where they discussed what to do with the bag of silver and gold that Yuzhe brought with him. At first, Meiyue thought of just handing the needy the money but Yuzhe suggested it would be better to give them things that they needed instead. He said sometimes cash was like drugs, often used for healing yet it could also be used in the wrong way. In the end, they decided primary upon rice, salt, and some cooked food.
Meiyue did not get to inform Kenshin with what they planned for he was nowhere to be found. She rejected escort from the guards at the manor and headed out into the town with just her group.
In the daylight the square looked different. For one moment Meiyue could imagine that she was strolling in the market square near Yuzhe's house back in the north, though there were less stalls and much lesser crowd. Sellers occupied the sides of the street. From vegetables, fruits, and meat up to beautifully handmade crafts were spread upon woven grass mats. They called upon the group as they passed. The princess desired to take a look at the merchandise, but told herself to focus on the task first.
The men purchased bags of rice and salt from a publicly-owned grocery store down the street. Meiyue and Xiaonu went to find a place where they could exchange gold coins into smaller changes before buying dozens of buns put in a paper bag. (Their breakfast was included in there too).
They deposited their purchase and ate in front of a building that had been closed down. It was late morning, though the sun was shielded behind clouds. The air felt cooler, and Meiyue wondered if it was because of thick forests that surrounded the town.
"Do you think we've bought enough?" Meiyue asked Yuzhe after they ate. He was looking down at the string bags at their feet. The color of the bags matched his clothes, a pale shade of yellow that reminded her of sugarcane. "Should we ask for a wagon?"
"They should be enough, and we can carry them," he said, meaning the guards. They were rid of their armors and dressed plainly. "Maybe we can split into groups. That way we might be able to offer help to more."
Meiyue turned to the others. Xiaonu was explaining something to Baotong while the others listened intently. "We can make four groups."
"Are you alright to separate with Xiaonu?"
Caught off guard at his implication, Meiyue said, "I think she's enjoying this adventure well enough." Her maid was laughing at something the soldiers said. Then sensing the princess looking, she came to her.
They then divided into groups of two, Xiaonu being with Baotong, and the rest of the soldiers in pairs. Meiyue instructed Baotong to bring Xiaonu back to the manor at nightfall before they set off in separate ways.
"Do you have any place in mind that we can go to help?" Meiyue asked once alone with Yuzhe. He was carrying the heavier bags of rice and salt while she held a parcel of warm buns.
They were out of the market square now. Wagons bearing timber and iron rods passed them. Padding on foot were vendors with yokes over their shoulders. On either side were adjoining workshops and stores belonging to the government, laborers crowding the buildings.
"I remember there's a slum where the most of the unprivileged roamed. I'm not sure it lasted until now though," Yuzhe answered.
Meiyue hugged the parcel tighter, remembering their conversation with Kenshin from dinner. "Let's go check then."
Yuzhe nodded and led the way. He navigated the way with a little ease, sometimes pausing to check the direction with others. Meiyue supposed he had put his days here in a dark part of his mind where they eventually turned to hazy memories of what had passed. Staring at his back as they walked, she wondered shortly about his past.
It turned out that the slum did indeed last and was located at the very back of the town. They had to venture through alleys that were piled almost completely by trash. The rotting smell brought tears to Meiyue's eyes and she forced herself to keep up with Yuzhe.
When they exited another alley, the sight beyond depressed her. Homes at this part weren't nicely furnished stone buildings like the front, weren't even close to the ones in the north. The street was like a barrier that separated them from everyone else.
Lining the other side of the road were sheds roughly built with either wood panels or palm leaves, holes in the roofs and walls. Windows and doors were rectangular gaps closed by rags suspending from the lintel. Meiyue glanced into one hut in particular and saw a mother milking her child at a corner. The smallness in which they had to live in cramped her own heart.
A little girl peered at them behind a shack when they moved on a bit more. She was dressed in worn clothes, her face and the rest of her covered in soot. She stood bare foot, looking shyly at Yuzhe when he saw her.
He moved to where she was and urged her to come forward. The child seemed hesitant at first and when Meiyue followed to where Yuzhe was and smiled at her, the little girl smiled back and came forth.
Yuzhe set his holdings down and crouched to the girl's level. "Do you live here, little miss?" he asked her and patted her head.
The brightness of her smile broke the princess's heart. "I live over there." She points to the back of all the shacks, where the forest started.
Meiyue lowered down and said to the girl, "Would you take us there? We want to help your family with some of these." The girl looked at the bags of rice on the ground and beamed again.
"Follow me," she said, before skipping happily to where her home was. Meiyue and Yuzhe followed suit.
They stepped though a narrow path between the sheds. Upon closer inspection, the slum had been packed with more occupants than Meiyue first thought. There could be about a hundred shacks around this area.
"That's where I live," the little girl said, pointing to a group of shelters situated apart from the rest of the sheds. They weren't even proper shelters but canvases draped over some supporting timber to act as a roof. No walls, no door, out in the open.
The girl ran to one of shelters to the right. A woman was bustling over a stone stove on the ground when Meiyue and Yuzhe approached. A bare bamboo bed was the only large furniture in the shelter. A few utensils sat on the ground next to the stove. They didn't seem to own anymore clothes.
"Mama, look." The girl pointed to the princess.
Her mother turned, and was surprised to see her guests. "Oh, I'm sorry. Please have a seat." She took a rag and quickly dusted the bamboo bed for them to settle down. "What brings you here to us, sir and ma'am?" she asked after they were both seated. She was a young woman who would be beautiful if she had led a different lifestyle.
"We saw your daughter and asked her to bring us here," Yuzhe said, glancing to the little girl clinging to her mother. "We actually want to help." He took a bag of rice and salt and handed toward her. "If you don't mind, it would be great if you can accept."
The woman hesitantly accepted the items. "I don't know what to say," she said, looking down at the offering with a look that spoke of tremendous relief. "T-thank you so much. You're both so kind."
Meiyue shook her head. "Please, join us." She gestured to the space beside her. The woman place the bags beside a pole near the stove and came to sit next to the princess.
"Do you need more firewood?" Yuzhe asked the woman, indicating to the stove.
"Oh, yes. I was about to go and get it," she said.
"I can go and get it for you." He slid down the furniture. The little girl went to take his hand.
"I want to go with you, mister," she told him before looking to her mother for consent.
"Behave yourself, okay?" her mother advised. The girl nodded. She giggled all the way to the outer edge of the forest where Yuzhe guided her and searched for woods.
Meiyue watched them with a smile. "How old is she?"
"Oh, she's turning six very soon," the woman said, looking after her child. Meiyue saw her hands were calloused from hard work. Her clothes had been washed too many times the colors had faded. "It is very rare for someone to visit us. If you don't mind me asking, where do you come from, miss?"
"I'm from the north. I just want to help those like you," she said, staring at her lap. "Though I'm not sure if I could do much."
"Even if you could not do much, your kindness still reaches our heart, miss," the woman told her, taking her hand. "And there aren't many who shares your generosity. The only other person that I know of is Lord Kenshin."
The woman nodded. "For us, we are still required by the law to pay tax yearly. But Lord Kenshin has never asked any of us here for a single penny. More than that, he instead sends us supplies every year. Everyone is more than happy."
The princess was more glad than furious by what she heard. "Kenshin is indeed a fine governor. I'll make sure that he is known among the leaders in the north."
"Then you must be..." The woman trailed, questioning.
She smiled a little. "I'm the King's youngest daughter, Long Meiyue." The woman gasped, wide eyed. She quickly released the princess's hand.
"I'm terribly sorry, Your Highness," she said, suddenly standing. "I-I didn't..."
Meiyue stepped onto the ground near her. "I'm telling you who I am because I want you to know that now that I'm here, witnessing your hardship," she took her rough hand into hers, "please know that the law will never again forget you. That I promise you will see more people like Kenshin governing and helping you throughout. We will never abandon you."
The woman wiped her eyes, and embraced her. "Oh, princess. I'm sorry for hugging you. But thank you." Meiyue suppressed her own tears and returned the embrace.
Yuzhe emerged from the woods just in time they parted. A collection of firewood was cradled in his arms while the little girl was waving at them with a thin gnarled stick.
"Where do I put these?" Yuzhe asked once he neared the shelter.
"Oh, you can place it near the stove. Thank you so much," said the woman. The girl came to her mother and offered to give the dead twig. Her mother took it and said to them, "Would you like to join us for a meal too?"
Meiyue exchanged a look with Yuzhe. "That would be lovely," the princess said. "I have these too if you'd like." She held the parcel of buns and showed it to the woman, who in turn grinned and suggested that they shared it with the neighbors.
After Meiyue came back, she went beside the woman. She was washing some tomatoes. "Is there anything that I can help prepare?"
"No, princess, leave it to me. Please wait until I have the food prepared," she said.
"That's right, princess," Yuzhe joined from the bed. "Come and sit. I'll help."
Meiyue spoke with the most imperial tone she could summon. "I insist."
"Actually, in this case, men should sit back and leave it to the ladies." The woman turned to Meiyue. "Is that right, princess?"
Meiyue threw Yuzhe a winning look, which he pretended he didn't see, and crouched near the woman.
They ate together, and soon the neighboring occupants came to join too. Meiyue listened to their conversation about their daily activities and complaints about their husbands who were working in the town-square. Then the talk had somehow drifted toward herself. They questioned her how life of a princess was. Yuzhe too looked at her with curiosity. And not long she also found herself complaining, and their laughter echoed until the evening.
That night back at the manor, Meiyue slid the door of her quarter and moved out into the courtyard.
The garden was illuminated by arched granite lamps that dotted throughout the expense. She walked between the stone arrangement, slowly marveling the art work, as the breeze glided by and scattered the petals of the cherry blossoms trees. They were in full bloom, the blossoms painting the ground in a pale shade of pink.
She turned around. Yuzhe stood behind watching her. The blossom tree above him shed a petal a hair's breadth away from his face. "I didn't realize you were here," she said. He had changed his clothes from earlier the day to a light purple ruqun. His hair, as always, was half tied to keep the bangs from his face.
Yuzhe came toward her, and they walked side by side to a stone bench positioned near a lamp. It had been awhile since they had each other's company alone. Xiaonu was dining with the rest of the guards, and the princess insisted on waiting for Kenshin to return. His men had claimed that their lord had "suddenly vanished."
They sat on the cold bench. "It's good to spend sometime away like today once in awhile," Yuzhe remarked later on.
Meiyue stared at a particularly huge cherry blossom tree. "They were all so kind. It's ironic that only those who did not have knew to appreciate every little thing." Back at where she was raised in the palace, there were more competitions of appearances rather than heartfelt sincerity.
"That's what you'd mostly find among the unprivileged. Kindness and appreciation," he said, looking up. "The neighborhood I used to live in was like that too."
Meiyue followed his gaze. A crescent moon hung on the black sheet that was the sky. When she turned to him, his eyes held a certain melancholic light, as if they were reminiscing a distant memory. She couldn't help but asked, "How was it like before when you lived here? Where were you before Uncle Liping took you in?"
He leaned on the bench. Meiyue did not look away. She couldn't.
"I couldn't remember." She thought he wouldn't continue after a moment. Then he said, "It's like my memories started after father adopted me. I was very young then, seven years old. I remember that we used to live in a place similar to the slum today, but I never once thought I was unfortunate.
"I helped around the house and took care of a four year-old Zhonghong. She said her mother passed away giving birth to her and father was busy sustaining the family with his jobs. Everyday I wished I could hurry up and grow older so that I can work too." His expression now pulled her chest. Meiyue took his hand. It was big and warm against hers. "The death plague came when I was twelve. Father warned us to not step outside the house because the sickness mostly preyed upon the young ones. But seeing as father risked himself, I disobeyed his words. I went to work."
He smiled when he saw Meiyue's horrified face. "I caught the plague right on that day. And knowing that, I didn't go home. I went to beg a local infirmary where it housed many of the sick and stayed there until I got better. But when I went back home, father said Zhonghong tried to find me between the time I was absent and hadn't return."
The smile disappeared from his face. Yuzhe gripped her hand when he continued. "It turned out she was kidnapped, like you, by the kokurenians. If father hadn't found her in time, they would have...violated her." The princess brought a hand to her mouth. "From that time on, I swore that I would do whatever it took to get out of this place. And that I would never forgive the law for letting those criminals run wild."
Meiyue now understood the desperation behind his embrace when he found her in the woods near the coast. She knew too the reason why he was so against her coming to the south. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
"And when I found out that you were kidnapped, I was so afraid that I was too late." He would not let go of her hand. She wanted to soothe him, wanted to take away the dark part of his past. She wanted to bring her hand to his face as he looked at her. But they were interrupted when a manservant approached. Yuzhe reluctantly released her hand.
"My apologies for my intrusion, Dianxia, but Lord Kenshin has just now returned. He has requested for Your Highness's presence as well as yours, sir," he said a distance away.
Meiyue told him, "We'll be there." The man bowed and excused himself.
"Let's go eat," said Yuzhe, and stood. His face held no more dark sentiment as he held out a hand for her. The past was past.
Meiyue nodded and took his hand.
"Sorry for being late," Kenshin said when Meiyue and Yuzhe settled around the dinner table. The princess saw that the food tonight was much more preferable than raw fish.
"Were you patrolling the town again?" Meiyue asked him, noting his plain clothes.
Kenshin took his chopsticks. "Oh, yes. But I was also investigating something. Oh this is good. Oba really makes delicious dishes," he remarked, and picked up another slice of meat stir fried with lemon grass.
Meiyue thought he was getting really comfortable with them. Yuzhe took up his chopsticks and ate. "Oh. It is good."
"Told you so." Kenshin gobbled up his rice. "Maybe I should marry her to keep her from ever wanting to quit the job."
"Free her, you demon," Meiyue chastised, and Yuzhe smirked.
When they were stuffed, Meiyue asked the mayor, "You said you were investigating something. Has anything happened?" She knew not to ask earlier, because whatever it was she had a feeling it would not be good enough to be discussed during the meal. Their last conversation taught her that.
Kenshin emptied a cup of rice wine. "No. Well, not yet I supposed," he said. The servants came to clear away the table.
"What is it?" Yuzhe questioned after they were alone.
Kenshin reached into his sleeve and took out a piece of paper, which he laid out on the table. Meiyue leaned to see the content. It was a drawing, roughly sketched into a picture of what was a bird with a beak and outstretched wings.
"There had been a case that involved an illegal import of weapons, smuggled in by a group of kokurenians," Kenshin said. "My men managed to discover their hideout and seize the weapons, but the culprits got away. They told me that before they escaped, all of the suspects had this image tattooed somewhere on their body. And they called themselves the 'Heavenly Messengers.'"
They stared at the drawing. "Were you able to gather any information about it?" Meiyue asked.
"Apparently, none of the other kokurenians seem know about it. I believe it's known only within the group." Kenshin poured more wine into Yuzhe's cup and refilled his own. The princess did not indulge in alcohol. "I hope it only meant that they belonged to some kind of religion that worships crows, but I haven't known of any that required blades for baptism."
Meiyue took the paper. "Perhaps I can make it known to the north and have some of the investigators search about it,"she suggested.
"Yes, that would be helpful," Kenshin asserted, his gaze lingering on the drawing. "Something feels dubious."
Meiyue could only imagine what the something was.