Meiyue had been bustling with activities ever since her return from the south. Her tutors all demanded clear explanation about her sudden disappearance and she had to recite the same reason over and over to each until she could memorize her own speech word by word. The only person who did not chide her was Miss Huian, though she appeared horrified to have found out that the princess had used her name to successfully propose the trip.
Meiyue's classes aside, which took up most of the days starting from early noon, there was also the matter of the upcoming festival. She had gotten away from another scold from her music instructor by pretending to be perfectly aware that the commemoration was just a week away. It was a Memorial Day to honor the late Queen who had passed away fifteen years ago. For all Meiyue knew her death was shrouded in the dark.
There would be a time for remembrance and prayers among the population of the Forbidden District. Afterwards, it would be opened for the rest of the commoners to join the festival within the Second Division. That was where performances and entertainments were provided. The princesses were to perform their individual talents on music as an initiation for the celebration. Which means within seven days Meiyue was to perfect a complicated melody in which she had lost the motivation to long ago. The piece did not move her, playing it was like reciting notes straight off from a lecture. But it was too late to change to another piece now, more because of her tutor thinking that the theme would give 'more eyes on her' when she played.
Meiyue sat in her class, staring at the musical sheets with her mind elsewhere. Her classroom was a small compartment adjacent to other chambers that served as teaching rooms for various instruments. She was said to be gifted with the talent of playing guzheng at a young age, and had been undertaking classes of that specific instrument only. Somewhere nearby she heard the glided notes of a lute, smoothly played until an abrupt mistake.
Meiyue's instructor showed up soon after, with a face powdered in excess, her dress a bizarre mix of orange and green inner blouse and coats. She swept into the room and up to where the princess was seated behind her instrument. It was an exquisite white guzheng adorned with gold decorations of ginkgo leaves and flying cranes at the sides. More of the implements were lined up against the walls for other students, their dark brown color stark compared to the grander one for the princess.
The class began. Meiyue was having a hard time focusing while her instructor could barely contain her testiness. It took the better of the lesson for Meiyue to keep up with the correct rhythm of the piece. When they were able to move on to another section of the song the sunlight that streamed in from the two windows had turned to warm gold of late afternoon, and thus signaling the end of the lesson.
Meiyue headed out from the building with a new throb to the sides of her head. Music class was the last on her schedule for today, but she certainly did not feel like she could celebrate it.
She found Xiaonu in the library. The girl was helping the librarian arranging some books into the categories on the shelves along a wall. A long table sits across the enormous room near a window, half hidden by the rows of books. Meiyue saw a figure seated on one of the chairs there, back turned to her.
The library was mostly unoccupied during this time of the day. She startled when several people suddenly appeared from between the shelves to drop her some greeting and curtsies. Junqian looked up from his book when she pulled out a chair and sat.
"Done for today?" he asks, leaning on a thick book bound in leather.
Meiyue nodded, her hand massaging the sides of her head. Somehow the attempt felt as if all the lessons she learned today were blurring together. "I've completely forgotten about the festival," she confessed. "Now I barely have the time to eat."
Junqian amused and closed his book. "It's going to be fun," he said. "Too bad you're never fond of parties."
"No, I am not," Meiyue confirmed. The previous year's boisterousness rung in her ears as she tried to recall the noises all around extending into late night.
"I didn't get to ask because we were both busy, but how was your journey?" Junqian asked, seeming expectant.
"Not good," she said. The main reason of her unfocused mind was not being able to tell anyone yet of the promise she made to Kenshin and the people. She figured that Junqian was a prominent consultant. Maybe telling him would prove more effective than telling Ruixue since Junqian actually did the work while the crown princess was still learning.
The advisor watched as she withdrew from her sleeve a paper. She spread it out on the table, revealing the sketch of the crow. Junqian looked at it and eyed her questioningly.
Meiyue told him of the man with the tattoo and his group and the heinous murder. Then she spoke of the people in the slums whom the government had neglected long enough. Junqian compromised that he would do what he could to send out more assistance and provision to the unprivileged and gave his word that the investigation about that certain group will be executed right away.
Meiyue knew she could count on him. It was also his suggestion that the wife and son of the victim stay in the palace temple, where the little boy would have education and his mother could work the chores.
Now that the urgent matters had been delivered, Meiyue felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She straightened, and skimmed over the book Junqian previously was reading.
"There's one more thing I have for you," Junqian said after they were done talking. He tucked the sketch paper into his chest pocket. "While you were away the King decided to let Yuzhe work officially in the palace. That is, if that's what he wants."
Meiyue snapped to him. "Really?"
He smiled at her giddiness. "Yes, he seemed to be convinced of his ability, though it was quite a sudden decision," he said. " Trying to convince the King aside, the duel would have not ended in a draw if it wasn't for your father calling an end to it." He made a face to her, still clearly weren't over the fact that he probably almost got beaten up.
There weren't many in the palace who held true mastery of martial arts. Within those whom she knew were the Abbot of the palace temple and Junqian. She suddenly remembered the time how her father had looked at Yuzhe during occasion in the throne room. Perhaps his mind was made long ago.
Junqian stood and pushed the chair under the table. "I guess I'll count that on you?" he asked.
She shut the book, smiling. "Leave it to me."
At daybreak the next day Junqian rose to compose a message down a scroll. Elegant brushstrokes of characters were produced in vertical lines as he wrote down the request of the King. He left the ink to dry once he finished, and stamped the bottom of the scroll with his initials. When he got dressed Junqian took a string of red yarn and secured it around the scroll before heading out to where Meiyue was.
They met at the back gate of the Private Ward. Meiyue was hovering near the metal ladder attached all the way up to the gate wall, dressed in a pink ruqun which Junqian had a deep suspicion that it came from her own maid. The skirt did not cover her ankles.
Meiyue lit with excitement when she saw him. The guards were taking switch during this exact time, and they had only a few moments before the new shift. Junqian could have summon one of his pages to carry out the task if he knew Meiyue planned to sneak out again, but she insisted that she needed sometime outside the palace walls to cool her head, even if that sometime was a quick errand to Yuzhe's house and back.
Junqian handed her the scroll, which she put into her sleeve. "Don't get kidnapped this time," he said, not entirely joking.
"I've learned my lesson," Meiyue said. She gathered her skirt into her hand before proceeding to climb up the ladder.
"Be careful," Junqian whispered when she reached higher.
Meiyue swept sides as she grabbed for the ladder on the other side of her wall. She moved agilely despite the narrow ladder and the towering height of the gate. "If I'm late, cover for me," she said from above.
Junqian recalled the last time she disappeared and said, "Do try not to." He caught a glimpse of a grin before Meiyue disappeared behind the wall.
He waited until he could no longer feel her movement from the other side. Then he casually moved to resume his work just as the guards began spilling out to fill their station.
Yuzhe carried out a basket of laundry to the well in the yard. It was still dark, but sleep was far gone. He had paced around the house for something to do. He could groom the horses, yet most of them were sleeping on their feet with their heads over the dutch doors as he passed the stable. Snores buzzed from a stall where the silver stallion was kept.
Yuzhe placed the laundry down before reaching for a bucket to scoop water from the well. People believed such trivial task was the women's role as it was men's responsibility to work and maintain the family. In Yuzhe's opinion, the one who tried to bring up the distinction was the same as using it as an excuse for either covering their indolence or for their own conveniences. All works were the same. They required time and effort. By being through a lot at a young age Yuzhe knew to never take anything for granted.
Dawn tinged the horizon in the palest of blue by the time Yuzhe began to rinse the clothes. He was thinking of where to find some errands to run later when Zhonghong appeared near him.
"You're up early," she said. She was still in her night dress, her black hair tied in a low ponytail. "I was looking for the laundry."
"I can take care of it," Yuzhe told her. "You go and prepare for work."
Before she could reply there were three consecutive knocks at the gate. Yuzhe thought it was quite early for a client to be coming. Zhonghong insisted that she finished doing the laundry while he went to answer the door. He dried his hands with his trousers and unbolted the wood from across the gate.
"Meiyue," he said in surprise.
"Good morning!" she greeted cheerfully. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, almost the color of her robe. Yuzhe opened the door further and made way for her to enter. He had been waiting for her visit ever since.
Meiyue instead reached into her sleeve and took out a parchment along with a tassel. She handed them into his hands. "I only came to give you these today," she said. "The festival is nearing so I can barely find anytime to come. But I know I'll see you soon." Her smile held a secretive edge.
"What are these for?" Yuzhe asked, looking at the items.
She only grinned and said, "Read the message. I really have to go now. Say hi to Zhonghong for me." Then the princess was already out of earshot before Yuzhe could criticize her about venturing out alone. He turned the tassel in his hand. It had the same design of the embroidered twin dragons that he saw Xiaonu showed to the guards of the Forbidden District.
"Who was it?" Zhonghong asked when he went back inside. She sat on the stool, twisting the clothes rid of water.
"Meiyue came to give me these," he answered. He undid the knot around the parchment and unfurled it. He read the content twice to make sure he wasn't misunderstanding, though he himself did not quite grasp the sudden call of the message.
Zhonghong came over to him. "What does it say?" He handed the scroll to her. Soon his sister burst out in surprise. "The King is asking you to work in the palace? Oh, isn't that great!"
"I don't understand," Yuzhe said, his tone not wholly welcoming.
"Did Meiyue say anything?" Zhonghong asked, which he shook his head. "Maybe the King wants to thank you for looking after his daughter. This is a sort of reward."
Yuzhe recalled Meiyue's words previously. Clearly, she was looking forward to have him working for the King as well. He didn't know how to tell her without upsetting her expectation. "You're going to be late for work," he said instead to his sister. "I'll hang the clothes."
Eagerly, Zhonghong took the parchment and the pass from him. "Don't forget breakfast before working," she reminded and headed into the house.
Yuzhe took out the clothes and hung them. Even if the King granted him a place of status and income he wasn't intending to abandon what he and his family had worked hard for in the past to have what they had now.
His mind about the government was made long ago.