"Do you realize you just offended all of us, Princess!" Duke Han argued in a loud, taunting voice. He turned to the other people in the room, all of whom came from aristocratic families.
Hah, this stupid Princess! She was implying he was greedy, but forgot, almost every human, by nature, were greedy people—including the people in this room.
People all greed for something, whether it was more wealth or power, there was still greed. Even desiring something good such as the improvement of the world could turn into greed—when they want it so desperately that it consumes them.
"Then all of you should be offended," the Crown Princess deadpanned. "The privilege of being born into aristocracy is not to indulge in your limitless wealth. It is to provide aid to the people who live on your land, so that they have provisions for food and other resources."
Her attention fell on each and every person in the room. "Everyone sits here today, for one reason or the other, whether it's for your own benefit, or the benefit of your faction. However, all of it boils down to the fact that we want to improve our country."
A silence fell amongst the ministers and representatives, all of whom, were watching her. She had their undivided attention now—something that had also happened last time. But this time, she held their attention longer. The last time, she made the mistake of bickering with Duke Han for so long that they got bored.
"Making our pockets heavier does not improve the state of our country," she declared in a bold, determined voice.
"But helping the citizens will," she argued.
"How so?" Commander Zhang finally said in a controlled voice. "Maintaining this war budget will ensure that our citizens have protection when they have no one but their kingdom to rely on. This war budget will fund any battles, and offer them new jobs should the situation require."
The Crown Princess narrowed her eyes. "And what did we do with the war budget when the towns bordering our Kingdom starved? When little boys became bandits, and little girls became beggars? When mothers wept over their sons' graves, and fathers farmed alone?"
Another heavy silence ensued, this time, thick and unnerving. The imagery of her words were too much.
"When I came to Hanjian, I saw the atrocity of war," she said in a low voice. "I personally witnessed the calamity that had befallen towns which worked so hard to stay afloat during a war that drowned them in bloodbath and scarce resources."
"This is the sacrifice they must make for our nation!" Commander Zhang deadpanned, his voice growing louder.
"Sacrifices?" she repeated in a dark voice.
"Our country was being threatened, their home was being threatened! People are bound to die for this country if they are truly loyal to it!" Commander Zhang growled.
People flinched at his voice, gnarly like a bear, and rough like its roar. His words were sharp like a bear's claw and many people expected the Crown Princess to cower back and cry. It would not be a surprise.
As a matter of fact, people expected that reaction, since grown men had been rendered silent, and even sniffled at Commander Zhang's frightsome voice.
He commanded people with not just respect, but also through fear and taunts. When he was aggravated, no one could scream louder than him or match his ferocity. No one except the Crown Prince himself.
"Little Princess, you should be aware of this when you set foot into Hanjian and become a sacrifice for your Kingdom," he seethed.
"Funny how this sacrifice earned you more than one treaty," she mused.
A vein popped out on Commander Zhang's face. Her humor was unappreciated by him, and it ruined his mood further. He slowly rose to his full height, revealing his broad shoulders were not just a bluff.
"What did you just say?!" he shouted, his lips curled in anger. One more word, and he would not be afraid to strike her, even if her husband was seated directly beside her.
The Crown Prince's gaze darkened. If need be, blood would be spilled in this room, and someone would never leave—not with his head intact, that is.
Everyone's attention snapped to the Crown Princess. They held their breaths, waiting, watching, just to witness her reaction. Was she going to tear up? Was she going to shrink back? Was she going to cry? The majority of them didn't have high expectations for the Crown Princess.
If she did break down, no one would blame her. Commander Zhang was a frightening man. If she did cower, no one would chastise her. Commander Zhang was an intimidating man.
But she took them all by surprise when she slowly shook her head.
"Is this what you view the people that your men have sworn to protect?" she whispered.
Her words caught everyone off-guard. Suddenly, she was sympathetic? But everyone blinked a bit, realizing it was not sympathy, but pure disappointment.
"What are you talking about?" Commander Zhang retorted.
"Are the citizens nothing but sacrificial lambs to you? Are children supposed to thank the kingdom for taking their parents away?"
Commander Zhang's eyes widened in shock. He was momentarily paralyzed by her words.
"The people pay taxes because they have faith that we will keep them safe. That we will feed them, clothe them, and provide them with a better prospect and future than anywhere else. Tax is not the money they pay to remain in this kingdom."
Commander Zhang blanched at her words. He was astonished that she was able to twist her words so well that he was beginning to see things from her perspective.
"War is a treacherous thing," she slowly said. "Even after leaving the battlefield in victory, soldiers still cry themselves to sleep, only to wake up in cold sweat during midnight, shaking, shivering from the horrors they had witnessed."
Commander Zhang narrowed his eyes. Where was she getting at?
"But at the least, shouldn't we give back to them? Shouldn't we give their little brothers or sisters the chance to have a better education, now that we have created a safer future for them? Shouldn't their children get a chance to learn something other than how to fall on their swords when captured by the enemies?"
No one spoke. No one moved. The ministers and representatives waited with bated breaths for Commander Zhang to say something. Anything. Even just a small grunt of protest would suffice.
But the loud and proud soldier did not utter a single word. He stared at her with his parched lips parted in shock. It was almost like he was struck by lightning, unable to move or blink.
And before everyone's eyes, Commander Zhang lowered himself back onto his chair. His hands gripped the handles of the chair, almost as if he needed the support of it just to sit comfortably.
Everyone was baffled by this reaction, especially Duke Han who had supported his opinion.
"Good friend, she is just playing you! Do not falter just because your soldiers were brought into this conversation," Duke Han whispered to his friend. "We must—"
"Keep your mouth shut, old friend," Commander Zhang growled. In an instant, Duke Han clamped his mouth shut and glared at the table.
Commander Zhang silently contemplated her words a bit. They were redundant, but that was the best way to get the message across wasn't it? She had mentioned the wellbeing of the citizens so many times in great earnest that even he was forced to consider her suggestion carefully.
Commander Zhang was forced to think back to his little soldiers. They entered the military as mere boys, but under his guidance, became outstanding men, only for the majority of them to crumble after witnessing the brutalities of war.
Sure, many of them were awarded with promotions and bonuses, but at the end of the day, they were superficial happiness.
When his men returned home, they would be forced to face the ghost of the crimes they had witnessed and committed. But who kept them going? Who kept them alive? It was evidently their families.
"Hah…" he let out a small sigh, shaking his head in pure disbelief.
Commander Zhang turned his attention back to the Crown Princess. Suddenly, her thin shoulders didn't look so small anymore. She had the figure of a weak soldier, but her determination was like that of a female Commander.
"You've finally won the fight, didn't you, Princess?" Commander Zhang murmured with heavy reluctance.
She simply smiled in response. "I might've won the fight, but I've yet to win the war."
And with this, he let out a great, bold laughter that surprised many. It was a sound as rare as his smile. No one had heard his laughter in a while…not since he lost his wife.
"If you are as determined as today, perhaps winning the war might not seem like a far-stretched plan," Commander Zhang informed her.
Commander Zhang ignored the gawking glare of his old friend, who could not believe that he had changed his tune. His lips pulled into a soft, reluctant smile that shocked everyone even more than his laugh.
"Building schools is not your sole proposal, is it?" Commander Zhang added on. "You kept on mentioning the children who lost their parents."
The Crown Princess firmly nodded her head. "They should receive something too, more specifically, a safe, warm place to stay aside from school."
Her eyes moved to everyone in this room. She hadn't realized in her passionate argument, she had captured everyone's attention. It was a daunting, yet satisfying feeling. They were all looking at her as if they couldn't fathom her courage to go against a Commander who scolded grown men.
"The orphanages are currently filled beyond the optimal capacity," she said. "If we're going to be building schools, we should also build more orphanages to house the children."
Commander Zhang's brows wrung together. "You know, Princess, one day, that gentle heart of yours will be crushed in this palace, and you will understand why flowers come here to die."
Instead of being offended by his words, she merely smiled. "Flowers only die because they could not adapt. But those who adapt will bloom the brightest."
The Empress's tired eyes widened. She had always been watching her son's wife, but now, the Crown Princess had earned herself more respect than anyone could even imagine. Li Xueyue's words resonated deep within her, so much so, that her eyes teared a bit and she had to look away.
And finally, the Crown Prince said something. In his deep, commanding voice, he addressed, "Crown Princess, you have presented your suggestion for allocating the war funds to benefiting the lives of the commonwealth."
She nodded her head.
The Crown Prince solemnly glanced around the room. "Those in favor of this suggestion, raise your hands."
No one moved. Everyone was slowly digesting her words, her convictions, her reasoning…
It was pure silence for a few seconds before Commander Zhang raised his hand, followed by the Empress. Then, one by one, hands slowly raised, and soon, the table was filled with agreements.
The Crown prince firmly nodded his head. "The Round Table has spoken. Crown Princess, your proposal has been approved."
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