The tour around the Capital was as exciting as Li Xueyue imagined. The culture of Hanjian was similar yet different from Wuyi.
Hanjian favored vibrant colors like ruby red, sapphire blue, emerald green, and so on. These could be seen from the decorations and banners hanging from poles, fluttering in the wind. Everywhere she looked, there was a symbol of the Imperial Family.
"Wait for me!" a child exclaimed as it chased their friends.
Kids whirled through the crowds as they played with their toys. Little girls held wooden swords in their hands as they chased after their brothers who wielded shields and other forms of wooden weapons. Laughter could be heard all around, painting a lively scene.
But what caught Li Xueyue's eyes were the women in well-fitted training robes bustling around. Some of them even carried swords with them. They walked with a confidence that Xueyue fawned over and her gaze lingered on them.
"It's a lot different from Wuyi, isn't it, Princess?" Lu Tianbi spoke up beside her.
The group had dropped off their horses in the town's stables and were almost reaching the People's Representative's house.
"Yes. In Wuyi, you don't really get to see many women who train their bodies and are physically active," Li Xueyue said whilst taking everything in front of her.
"Our opinions hold as much weight as a man here," Lu Tianbi explained. "So, if you ever have any hesitations speaking up, don't."
Li Xueyue smiled at her words. She nodded in response and shifted her gaze to Yu Zhen. He was currently speaking to the People's Representative near a secluded alleyway.
Yu Zhen didn't enjoy meeting in other people's houses despite the privacy it offered. Strangers' houses were unpredictable battlefields. Who knew what dangers could be lurking inside?
"... Yes, there are no complaints as usual. Even the commoners are accepting of the war tax imposed and are actually happy to help."
"And their supplies?" Yu Zhen questioned.
"No need to worry, Your Highness. They have adequate food, shelter, and so on. The shaper of our future—the children—are all well-fed. There is nothing to worry about, Your Highness."
Li Xueyue intently listened on whilst keeping a straight face. She continued to observe the Capital through the narrow alleyway where Lu Tianbi and Hu Dengxiao stood guard.
Suddenly, something caught her eye: a small child dressed in thin clothes that made it hard to identify their gender.
Li Xueyue had to squint and carefully judge the child's features to figure it was a boy. He was standing by the entrance of the alleyway looking hesitant with a small object in his hands.
"Are you certain?" Yu Zhen stated, though it came out as a demand.
Li Xueyue tilted her head upon seeing the child's anxious frown. She stepped out of the shadows and offered him a slight smile, beckoning him forward. Was his house beyond this alleyway?
The child brightened at the sight of her encouraging smile. He waived the object, the item glinting under the sun.
Li Xueyue touched her hair. Was it a hairpin she had dropped?
She shifted her chin towards Yu Zhen and noticed he was still occupied in the discussion. Lu Tianbi was also engrossed in listening in whereas Hu Dengxiao continued to stand guard on the other side of them.
Not wanting to disrupt them, Li Xueyue stepped forward and approached the child.
"Is that my hairpin?" she quietly asked as the child continued to wave the shiny thing in his hand.
But the child seemed frightened by the crowd behind her. He inched towards the edge of the alleyway, peeking his head inside every few seconds.
"It's okay, I'll come to you," Li Xueyue told him whilst advancing forward. When she was approaching the corner, she stuck her hand out.
"May I have it back—" She didn't get to finish her sentence when he sliced at her hand with the object in his hand.
Li Xueyue let out a sharp gasp and retracted her hand just in time before it could cut her. But that was a mere distraction because another kid ran and sneaked up behind her. Without warning, she felt a tug at her waist.
By the time she glanced down, the pouch of coins resting on her belt was gone. She blinked and the little boy was gone.
It was then Li Xueyue realized the item in his hand wasn't her hairpin. It was a knife. He had meant to cut her.
Li Xueyue jumped at the displeased voice behind her. She turned around and bumped into Yu Zhen's chest. He glowered down at her and grabbed her wrist.
"You shouldn't have wandered off without me." Yu Zhen examined her palms and let out a small sigh of relief when he saw no injuries on her fair skin.
"It was a small child, I didn't think he would hurt me," Li Xueyue explained. His eyes flashed with irritation at her words.
"You trust people too quickly," he seethed.
"I know," Li Xueyue mumbled.
Seeing she wasn't going to argue with him, Yu Zhen dropped the subject. He placed a hand behind her waist and pulled her closer to him.
"Go and find the brats," he informed a guard beside him.
"No, don't!" Li Xueyue argued, grabbing the soldier by his sleeve before he could head off.
Yu Zhen's face turned stormy at the sight. She dropped her hand a second later, only for him to catch it and entwine their fingers.
Li Xueyue sighed at his possessive nature. She realized he finally showed his true nature in Hanjian.
"Let the children go," she said.
"They stole from you."
"They needed the money more than me," Li Xueyue explained.
"Doesn't change the crime."
"They're kids," she emphasized.
"They're future thieves," he snarled. "Like the bandits who—"
"Your Highness," she coldly interrupted with a frown of her own.
Yu Zhen pressed his lips together. "Is this how you want to behave? Resorting to calling me by a title when you're angered?"
Yu Zhen let out a sigh through his nose. He was aggravated by her words and behavior. She was being so stubborn.
"We should focus on the other pertinent issues at hand," Li Xueyue pointed out. She stepped away from him and glared at the People's Representative.
"You said the commoners have everything they need," she stated.
"W-well, you see—"
"Why are there child thieves?"
"It seems some commoners are lacking resources, which is normal. Or perhaps, they're orphans with nothing else better to do. Who knows? They're nothing but peasants."
Yu Zhen sharply turned around at his words. He stormed towards the man and grabbed him by the throat, surprising many.
"You'll speak to her with respect," Yu Zhen growled. He threw the man against the wall and wiped his hand with a handkerchief. He curled his lips in disgust.
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes at the man. She didn't like his tone but that didn't bother her. His words did. Peasants were people too.
"He seems corrupted," Li Xueyue pointed out.
"You're fired," Yu Zhen said without hesitation.
"W-what? Your Highness, please—"
Yu Zhen grabbed Li Xueyue and covered her with his body before she was able to witness anything. He shielded her from seeing the grotesque scene behind them. But she heard it—the gurgling sound of someone choking on his blood.
Her face paled and she glanced up at him, wide-eyed. Her lips were parted out of shock.
"Useless people should be disposed of," Yu Zhen told her. He showed no remorse for the murder. Instead, he reached for her hand but she stepped away. He tried again, but she eased her body back.
"The children," she deadpanned.
"Forgiven and forgotten."
Li Xueyue smiled at his words. She grabbed his hand this time and held it.
When Yu Zhen pulled back from her, her smile instantly dropped. That is until he laced their fingers together and tugged her forward.
"Hold my hand properly next time," he grumbled.
Li Xueyue laughed at his words but it came out awkward. Despite killing Li Taojun, the thought of death and murder still worried her.
Yu Zhen must've noticed it as well. He said nothing but gently squeezed her hand. He hugged her with his other arm, pressing her face against his firm chest. She resisted. Lifting her head, she stared up at him.
"We'll have to discuss this during the Round Table as well—about the neglect of the commoners," she said.
"And how do you know they're neglected?"
"Oh, good point," she stated. "I want to personally talk to a few."
Li Xueyue frowned. "Why?"
"It's dangerous. I'll handle it."
"You're scary," she deadpanned.
"I'm supposed to be, my Little Sunshine."
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. "They'll be reluctant to talk to you."
"I'm not going to take you to the areas that they live in," Yu Zhen sternly told her. He released their hands and brushed his thumb against her lips.
"Don't bite," he murmured.
Li Xueyue didn't even realize that habit of hers. But she reluctantly nodded as his thumb caressed the side of her face.
"At least, let me talk to a few of them, whether it's at the market stalls or—"
"I never said you couldn't talk to them that way, Sunshine," Yu Zhen said. He smiled at her blank face and shook his head.
"Did you think I was restricting you to that extent?"
"Maybe…" she trailed off, scratching the side of her head. He grabbed her finger and brought it to his lips. An amused twinkle danced upon his eyes.
"Your freedom matters to me, Little Hamster," Yu Zhen stated. "I only disapprove of things that will bring harm to you."
Li Xueyue's heart flipped at his deep voice, ever so gentle. He spoke to her with patience and understanding. He was so different from the man he was in Wuyi, yet so similar. It was hard to explain.
"How cute," he teased when she sullenly glanced at the ground. His hardened stare softened. She was adorable even when she was upset.
"Let's just go," Li Xueyue said, ignoring his taunting smile.
"But stick close to me," he instructed.
Li Xueyue blinked. His voice was rough. There was no room for arguments, and he made sure of that. Yet, she wasn't riled up by him. They had settled on a compromise, one that she was completely fine with.
"Okay," she said with a firm nod of her head.
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