156 A Drink With the Artist Under the Plum Blossoms

    Zixu looked at her with his typical smile on his face. Not a trace of surprise reflected back from his eyes. It was as if he expected her to say the words that just left her mouth. He drew his sleeves back, bowing slightly with a nod. "Of course. If Miss Yang asks like so, then it would be wrong of me to reject."

    "Come along then." She gestured her hand, loosening her posture and attempting to keep a straight, emotionless expression as she walked into Lingxin.

    On the inside, however, she was anything but emotionless. Her mind was a complete mess.

    What was she thinking? Why did she ask Yu Zixu to stay behind? He was a


    , for goodness sake. A grown, adult man. If Yujia went back to herself from a month ago, she would surely never worry about these fickle things, but things had changed since then. Now, it was almost as if she was growing used to society's ideals. Or, not even that, but Yujia felt more inclined to think about what others would think of her. If they found out that she went drinking all night long with Young Master Zixu, how scandalous would that rumor sound?

    The only idea that slightly assured Yujia was that Lingxin Academy was a private place. No one, except for her master, her senior brother, her senior brother's family, and the servants, would be inside the academy's private gates, with it being so late in the evening already.

    She tried to push these thoughts of scandals and rumors aside for a good solid minute. With the fact that the two of them were in complete silence, it was even more difficult to distract herself with other thoughts. Every single time Yujia attempted to think of something else, these thoughts about scandal echoed even louder in her head.

    When they arrived near the courtyard Yujia resided in, Yujia finally picked up enough courage to break the silence. "Don't you think it's improper for you to do this?"

    "What do you mean?" He leaned his head to the side, almost as if he was genuinely oblivious.

    "You know what I mean, don't you?" She found her voice light and airy. Their voices were both quiet, as if the stillness of the night was too perfect to break.

    He replied, "Didn't I tell you that I have questions? Is there not a better time to ask than right now, over a drink of sweet wine?"

    Yujia paused for a long moment. The two stopped at the front arch of the courtyard. She hesitated before stepping in, then said, "I always thought you were uptight about etiquette."

    "I am," The corners of his lips turned up even more as he spoke, "but only when others are around. That's the only time that it matters, isn't it? When you are alone at home, do you sit with perfect posture, sleep without turning, and fold your hands exactly how they want you to?"

    "Am I not an 'other', then?" she quipped back.

    "No. Of course not. At least, not right now."

    This made Yujia smile, at last. If he said with complete certainty that she was not another person, she would've thought of it as a lie. If he claimed that she was an other person, she would've felt uncomfortable too. Yet with his answer that was leaning towards both sides, she actually felt like there was more certainty and truth to his words.

    "Then, tonight, there's no etiquette between us, like two brothers having a drink together," Yujia concluded, walking past the front arch.

    "Ah. Are you Yu Ziyang tonight?" Zixu arched a brow, amusement threaded through his voice.

    The two of them stopped in front of the plum tree, bare of blossoms and standing alone, in the middle of the yard. Perhaps it was the moonlight cascading down onto it, but the plum tree looked more lonely now.

    "Should I be?" She used to dislike thinking about the nerve-wracking, panic-driven moment where she had first officially met Yu Zixu, impersonating as his younger brother, Yu Ziyang. Now, though, it was more of a story to laugh at. It brought a light smile to her face.

    "If you want to be," he suggested. "I don't particularly care who you choose to identify as- Miss Yang, Yu Ziyang, Teacher Yang- does it even matter?"

    "Then call me Yujia." At this, Zixu gave her a peculiar look, so Yujia hastily added on, "If that's comfortable with you. I... don't really like being called "Miss". Never liked it. Never will."

    Thinking about it, Yujia wished that she told Hui'er this long ago. Hui'er has always called her "Miss", but Yujia never found an opportunity to properly tell the young girl to call her by her name in private.


    Yu... Jia


    Zixu spoke slowly, his words not rolling off his tongue as smooth as it always. It was a first to see him this way, his words clunky and unpracticed.

    "I'm sorry," he quickly added again, "I'm not too used to this."

    "It seems like you


    care about etiquette a little more than me after all," Yujia laughed. She sat down underneath the plum tree, her back leaning against the wide trunk. "I thought we agreed on no etiquette?"

    Zixu sat down as well, shaking his head a bit. His lips were slightly parted, but he was silent, as if he couldn't think of a response to Yujia's words in time. Instead, while Yujia opened the jar of wine, he looked up at the branches of plum, his eyes taking in the full view of the bare branches.

    Yujia looked down at the wine, then at her empty hands. She just realized that she had no cups, and surely, Zixu and her couldn't share the same jug. "Hold on," she noted, "I'll go get cups."

    In a rushed manner, she headed into her room, looking for cups to grab. The candles were still lit in the room, along with the lanterns hanging in the walkways, probably by the servants who saw that she still had not yet returned and decided to light up the room for her. This way, when she returned, she wasn't bathed in complete darkness.

    By the time that she went back, two cups in her hands, Zixu was still looking at the tree.

    "You like the plum tree?" she asked while she poured him a cup.

    "Under the moonlight, it's almost ethereal." He raised the cups to his thin lips, barely taking a sip in between his words. "I only wish that it was blossoming- now that would be a stunning sight."

    Yujia drank from the cup she poured for herself too, taking a deeper sip than him. "My master said that this was a seventy years old tree, and that it blossoms in white. Yet I'm not so sure about the full story of the tree. He promised to tell me about it when I finished an assignment he gave me this morning." She tilted his head back, looking at the thin strands of moonlight scattered through the branches. Then, she looked back at Zixu. "What are your questions? I'm prepared to answer now."

    "How about you tell me about your Yang Villa? I would like to know more about it."

    She filled her cup back up, beckoning her head at the near-full cup Zixu still held. "You have to take a drink every time you ask a question. It's not fair otherwise."

    "Alright." He sighed in an airy, laughing manner. Yujia noticed that this was how Zixu always laughed. His laughs were mostly soft breaths of air escaping his lips, the slightest bit of sound carried along with it. Lifting his sleeve up, he tilted his head back with the cup in his other hand.

    Since he drank all of the wine, Yujia now had to tell him. She thought about what she could say about the Yang Villa. Some of her experiences of her time spent in the villa were pleasant, while others weren't. Some of them she still didn't want to tell Zixu of either.

    Finally, she settled on one topic.

    "Let me tell you about my sisters then," she began, "There's four other ones, but I've only met two of the four..."

    Her words went on, along with the cups of plum wine that continued to be emptied and filled. She finished talking about her four sisters. Zixu proceeded to ask about her maid when Yujia was finished discussing her sisters. They took another shot of wine, then continued to chat.

    Yujia asked Zixu back some questions about his family and art. Zixu asked her where she learned painting from. They exchanged a few tips of art. They talked about society, about life, about beliefs, about failed plans, about triumphant successes

    Zixu told her a childhood memory of watching a painter paint for the first time. She discussed the library of Lingxin. He explained the breath-taking beauty of the sun when it shone red over the mountains, but only if you were up at just the right time to see it happen. He also talked about his favorite small parts of nature, from the way the blades of grass bent under the weight of a blue dragonfly, or the sound of water trickling through a creek in the still forest. She made fun of her mountain paintings though she had never painted a mountain with a reference in front of her. He laughed and replied back with how he once convinced an entire crowd that his painting was valuable though there was barely anything good on it. She went on to giggle about the examinations where they first met officially.

    Talking about these things, like Yujia predicted, was like relieving a huge weight off her shoulders. As the cups of alcohol went down, she felt lighter. The strings that were tying her back down to the struggles of the mundane world were being cut loose, one by one, bit by bit.

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    The tavern owner wasn't lying when he said that his special Plum Blossom Wine would be perfect for her scenario. The taste of the wine was not the kind to burn down her throat, but the kind to flow through her like warm honey, leaving a fragrant sweetness on her tongue. Each cup went down smoothly, and the wine did what Yujia wanted it to do.

    She forgot the things she wanted to forget. She found solace in the blurriness of her thoughts, the slow, slurred manner of her speech. And with Zixu, who listened patiently, was the best person to be by her side, hearing all her thoughts and complaints.

    It seemed like hours passed, but her sense of time was also fading. She raised the jar of wine, which felt as light as a feather now, pouring the last few drops into her and Zixu's cups. She held her cup up high, as if serenading the moon, letting her words tumble out of her mouth. "Plum Blossom Wine under an ancient plum tree. There is nothing more suiting."

    "Only a pity that there are no blossoms." His voice sounded steady to her ears, which was surprising. Even drunk, Yu Zixu was so collected in his speech.

    But she could care less about what Zixu's voice sounded like. The last cup of wine vanished. A wide grin spread across her face while her hand dropped the empty cup she held in her hand. She stretched her arms out, waving at the plum tree above the two of them. "That only means that next year, when the plum blossoms under the snow, we must have another drink. You have to agree."

    "En." Zixu ran his fingers through the grass absentmindedly while his eyes looked back at Yujia's.

    At that moment, seeing his face in such a full view, a memory flashed in Yujia's mind. This memory was startling in the way that it was sharp and clear, though Zixu's face in front of her was becoming more blurred by the second. It was the face of Wu Hao, the person Yujia had a silly little crush on when she was in high school. It was also the person who shared the exact same face as Yu Zixu.

    Why was she thinking about him now? He meant nothing to her, didn't he?

    She inclined her head to the side, straining to keep her eyes open even though her eyelids were becoming heavy. She wanted to look at Zixu's face for just a little longer. Or did she want to look at Wu Hao's face for just a little longer? Who was who? Where was she, even?

    But she didn't want to think of Wu Hao. She didn't want to think of the world filled with technology, the world filled with cold-hearted people, and the world filled with painful memories. All she wanted to do was to capture this moment under the plum tree in her mind, to brush everything else away with a wave of her hand.

    "You know-" she murmured, her voice barely louder than a whisper, "You look so much like him- it almost hurts."

    With the end of those words, she lurched forward and fell into his outstretched arms.
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