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"Have you scouted out the village yet, Fu Junjie?" Shi Zixin asks as she sips on a flask of water.

The female soldier nods. Over the past couple weeks, Shi Zixin has noticed that Fu Junjie was a hard worker, so she had been serving as a right-hand-woman of sorts to Shi Zixin. 

After all, she's the only person who won't betray me since I hold her life in my hands.

7 days ago, Shi Zixin's new brigade marched closer to the village through the valley and had camped in a narrow plateau at the base of the hilly village that still remained out of sight. 

"Yes, the village seems to be larger than the estimates, sitting at about 1,000 people. It seems that over the past decade they've bounded closer together and have a sort of community of their own. I can still understand how they speak, but their accent is quite...strange," the girl comments as Shi Zixin nods.

"And where do they stand in relations with Shaolian?"

"Most wish for no conflict. The taxes are heavy upon them, as per most small towns, but many still support the crown because of the protection they receive," she responds. "I bet if you offer them cheaper protection,  we may be able to pass through peacefully and have them switch over to our side with no conflict."

Shi Zixin feels her brows cinch together.

'008...doesn't that seem a bit strange?'

'What?'

'This remote village is being taxed excessively for protection.'

'And...?'

'And it's in the middle of nowhere. I haven't seen anyone outside of our brigade cross over here.'

'...Now that you mention it, that is quite strange...'

Shi Zixin nods to herself. "I'll head out to the village today. Regardless of what happens, it's a win-win. If we pass through peacefully without any battles, it'll have been a good resting period for the soldiers to train up seriously. If we go to battle, then these men will see the gruesome reality of their situation."

Fu Junjie nods. "Of course. Shall I accompany you?"

"Sure," Shi Zixin replies. "I'll take out four others as well. We'll have three shadow guards tailing behind."

"I'll prepare that right away, Commander Shi."

 At lunch, Shi Zixin rode out to the village, five others in tow. The shadow guards had already set out, preparing positions in the village.

When Shi Zixin and her group crossed over into the threshold, the bustling market of the market went quiet at the sight of the Jinzhou seal on the strangers' waist. The only sound that was echoing through the dry air was the ongoing chirping of the birds on the wooden roofs. 

In fact, it seemed as if birds were everywhere in this village. There were nests in every nook and cranny for owls, sparrows, and crows, and the smell of chicken seemed to permanently waft through the air as well. 

The people in this village were dully dressed compared to the beautiful colors of the birds. It was a mural sewage of browns, greys, and blacks that painted their clothes dull. The only splashes of white were the bird poop that littered the streets and roofs and the white puffs of air exhaled from pale lips, long cracked from the dry air.

The six continued to ride at a steady trot to the central palace of the governor. 

Shi Zixin could see him from a distance, like a bright beacon in the dark. He was donned in colorful silks of vibrant yellows and reds with jade adorning him from head to toe. When Shi Zixin got closer, she could see that his lips were dipped in a ravishing red.

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