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216 The Shattering Memory Fragments of the Pas

    The fourteenth memory was a fragment of a conversation.

    \"You don't blame me?\" he asked.

    \"No. Why would I? You didn't do anything,\" she answered.

    \"But my father. He- he was the reason,\" he went on.

    \"You are not your father,\" she replied.

    And then she put on a small smile, one with her eyebrows raised, head tilted.

    \"Yet sometimes, I wonder why fate must be so cruel.\"

    ...

    In the fifteenth memory, a year had passed since the execution.

    Ever since that day, Yujing spent more and more time alone. She used to spend her days with a few close friends. Now, she barely visited them, keeping to herself in her courtyard. At times, she didn't want to see Yue Ze either.

    He respected that. She was still in mourning.

    In this memory, he had just returned back to their villa from a morning session of teaching his students. He found Yunjing sitting by herself, embroidering a piece of silk cloth. She looked down at her piece, seemingly giving all her attention to it.

    Spring had arrived. Birds were chirping. A soft breeze fluttered through the yard. New leaves budded on the branches left bare by winter's hands.

    Yue Ze sat down across from her. \"What are you embroidering?\" he asked, starting a conversation.

    Her hands pausing, she looked up and replied, \"Some birds.\"

    He nodded and poured himself a cup of tea, glancing over at the side. Two birds were sitting on top of a nest built at a tree, and at a closer look, it seemed like the father bird was feeding his children with a worm he found. Yue Ze then looked over at the birds that Yunjing was embroidering. They seemed like the same two birds- common ones that no one usually embroidered.

    \"Are those your inspiration?\" he asked, gesturing at the birds perched at the tree.

    Yunjing looked up again, eyes traveling in the direction he pointed at. \"Yes,\" she answered softly, breath catching.

    A moment passed, and she set the embroidery in her hands down. Yue Ze noticed this, turning to her and waiting for her to say something.

    She ended up saying, her voice quiet, \"Today would've been my mother's fiftieth birthday.\"

    ...

    In the sixteenth memory, Yunjing and Yue Ze were having a conversation.

    It was one of the few times that she ever spoke about her family after the date that they passed. This conversation was one that happened in the middle of the night, where Yue Ze woke up and found that Yunjing was not asleep either.

    He asked her why. She said it was because she dreamed of her family again, and she could no longer fall asleep after that dream.

    \"You know,\" she had said, \"Sometimes, I think that I'm fine. Sometimes, I think that all these days have passed, and every day, I am erasing a little more of them. Sometimes, I think that I've already moved on.\"

    She paused right here. She paused, taking a deep breath.

    \"But then, there are little things. I'd see the foods that my younger brother liked to eat. I'd see the type of silk that my mother liked to wear. I'd find a pendant my father gave me, as part of my dowry, that I had stored in a box a long time ago. And it's grief. It's grief all over again. Grief and grief and grief.\"

    Yunjing rolled over, facing away from him.

    \"Sometimes,\" she whispered, \"I feel so tired.\"

    Yue Ze had turned to face her after hearing this, gently whispering back, \"If you want to continue talking about it, I'm always here to listen. Whenever.\"

    Yunjing shifted herself to face him again, one of her hands reaching out to cup his face. In the murky darkness, he couldn't see her features, but he imagined a light smile gracing her lips.

    \"Thank you,\" she said.

    Yet after this moment, she kept silent. The next morning, they didn't speak about this conversation they had. It was almost like a dream, like something that never existed.

    And ever since they had that conversation, Yunjing never brought up the topic of her family on her own again.

    ...

    In the seventeenth memory, Yue Ze caught Yunjing returning home after attending a friend gathering. This was the first official one that she decided to go to after declining countless invitations and staying in the villa.

    Instead of returning back joyfully, however, she returned home with her head cast down and eyebrows knitted. Yue Ze, who was walking between courtyards to find a good object to reference for a new painting, saw her right then. He noticed that she barely greeted him before heading off in the opposite direction- an act definitely different than usual.

    \"What's wrong?\" he immediately asked, turning to her and grabbing her hand to stop her.

    Yunjing froze in her steps, but she didn't move to look at him. \"Nothing,\" she answered.

    \"Something's wrong,\" Yue Ze insisted, moving in front of her.

    He saw her put on a smile. Her smile. That smile. The smile she always put on. \"I said, nothing's wrong,\" she repeated.

    \"I'm not blind, Yunjing.\" He put his hands around her shoulders. \"Something's clearly wrong. Talk to me about it.\"

    She took a step back. His hands fell.

    \"Alright, then. I'll tell you,\" she said, her voice slowly rising in volume, \"I'll tell you how people think that your wife is an embarrassment to be around. That she should be ashamed of herself to even step outside with the surname of 'Wei'. That she must be a pathetic traitor like that sorry father of hers who ended up with his head rolling on the ground.\"

    Yunjing's eyes were watering up. When she finished with her words, she took another step back, wrapping her arms around her tense self.

    Yue Ze's expression dropped. His temper flared up, eyes widening. With a clenched jaw, he demanded, \"Who said that to you?\"

    The anger and frustration building up within Yunjing seemed to vanish with that question. She glanced down, the side of her lip twitching up with a laugh. \"People who I ignorantly believed to be my friends.\"

    \"Give me names,\" he continued to demand. Seeing her hesitation, he pressed, \"Even if they were your old friends, you shouldn't still keep covering up for them. Two-faced people like that don't deserve it. Give me names.\"

    \"Oh?\" Yunjing looked up again. \"And what will you do about it, if I give you these names?\" Her expression shifted into a smirk. \"Oh wait, I forgot. You're the son of the almighty Chancellor Yue. How could you possibly allow your traitor wife to be shunned by the rest of society?\"

    Yue Ze stepped back, eyes widening again. He lost the aggressive tone threaded in his voice. \"Yunjing, why are you being this way?\" He hesitated, then said, \"If you don't want to give names, fine, but still, talk to me about it. Don't close off like that. Like I said before, I'm here to listen.\"

    \"Listen? And then what? How could you possibly understand? It's not like you get told by others to be ashamed of that 'Yue' surname. Your father is doing as fine as ever. You have all the honor in the world, even as that son your father never cared about,\" she snapped.

    She gave him one last look, then turned and walked away again.

    Stunned by her remark, Yue Ze couldn't quite move.

    He had heard similar things in his past. He heard it from his brothers, from his colleagues, from the other nobles.

    But hearing Yunjing say that- the Yunjing he knew as the person who always encouraged him, who would never say something like that- was different.

    He couldn't understand it at all.

    Instead of staying frozen in place, though, Yue Ze suddenly blinked, chasing after her. He grabbed her again, forcing her to stop.

    His words came out in a blurred rush. \"You're not telling me what's wrong. Stop. I know- something must be wrong- you're not usually like this- just talk to me. Talk to me, Yunjing.\"

    At this, she couldn't hold it back anymore. The tears that she had been holding back, the mix between betrayal, rage, and pain, rushed out of her.

    \"Why are you so good?\" she cried, \"Why are you this way? I tried so hard to push you away, but you're still like this. Why?\"

    \"You're trying to push me away?\" he echoed, loosening his grip around her, \"That's- just- why would you do that?\"

    \"That's-\" she faltered.

    He demanded, \"Tell me.\"

    She stared at him, tears spilling out of her eyes. \"Alright- because I feel like a burden, alright? I feel like a pathetic, worthless burden to you. I'm so sick and tired of all of this. I'm so sick and tired of everyone. I'm sick of the person I am today. I hate all of it. All of it, all of it, all of it. I hate myself for being the last person alive in my entire family, and that the whole world mocks me to the point where I can't even go by my name without getting mocked. I'm exhausted by the way that things always turn out in the end. I hate the kind of person that I've become, and how I'm treating you, and how I'm acting right now-\"

    She was collapsing again. She was collapsing right in front of his eyes, and Yue Ze couldn't stop this rush of emotions from spilling out of her.

    At the end of her long rant, she took a deep breath, reaching up and wiping her tears. \"Something's just so wrong with me, and I'm so lost. I don't even know what the purpose of continuing on is, certain days.\"

    \"Don't say that,\" Yue Ze immediately interjected, eyebrows furrowed, \"Yunjing... I think that you just need to... take a break from all of this. Stop associating yourself with those people, and find more people that appreciate you for who you are. But first, you need to learn to love and accept yourself. Hearing you say all of this- it really pains me. It pains me to see you treat yourself this way.\"

    \"Then, tell me what am I supposed to do? Repeat to myself in the mirror every single day that I love myself?\" Her tone continued to shift in every second. \"That's bullsh*t.\"

    \"You should do what gives you happiness,\" he suggested.

    \"What gives me happiness?\" She paused. \"I want the world to know my name. I don't want to hide under a pseudonym anymore. I want to be known for what I did. That will give me happiness.\"

    Hearing this, Yue Ze's first response was to support her, urging her to go do that. Yet then, a new idea suddenly surfaced in Yue Ze's mind.

    In the past, perhaps she could do that. Despite the lack of equality in this world, she could slowly build up her name and win herself what she wanted.

    Only now, things would be different.

    The Wei surname was indeed like what Yunjing said- something deemed as a traitor's name. Even if Yue Ze didn't want to admit it, it was the truth.

    If the world knew that Wei Yunjing was the one behind making better salt, creating soap, redesigning fans to have the folding shape, updating the luxury products that elites liked to use, bringing new concepts and techniques to outdated methods... what would be the reaction?

    He could imagine the doubt and skepticism already. He could imagine what people would have to say, especially on the topic of wealth.

    If Wei Yunjing was the one behind all of this, she must've raked in enormous wealth. It's impossible to store all the gold without using it, so what if she, too, contributed to her father's private army? What if she was the one supporting her traitor family the most, and why they got to do all the things they did? What if her father disowned her to keep her alive, just so that she could continue his legacy with her wealth? What if she could become a threat to the Emperor himself?

    Even disowned, the blood that ran in hers was blood of the Wei Family. Who was to say that she wouldn't be like her father and try to usurp the Emperor as well? Who was to say that she wouldn't try supporting those future usurpers of the throne?

    Yue Ze wondered if he was overthinking.

    Except these fears- the fears that these exact suspicions might rise up- grew in his heart.

    He blurted out, \"Can we... push the entire idea of revealing your identity back a little bit?\"

    Very clearly, he knew that this was the wrong thing to say. For right in front of him, he saw her change- the way her lips curled down, eye twitching. She backed away, shaking her head slowly.

    \"So you, too, have become one of them,\" she murmured.

    Yue Ze didn't understand the person in front of him right now. He didn't understand the way she looked at him, devoid of anything in her gaze. He didn't understand the way she spoke, her tone so sharp as if they were enemies.

    \"Yunjing... why have you become like this?\" he asked, his voice a low murmur as well.

    \"I haven't turned into anyone, Yue Ze. I've always been this way,\" she answered, her voice cold.

    \"Then, what about the old Yunjing that I knew?\"

    She smiled. He thought he knew her smile. He thought he knew the person behind the smile. He thought he knew her so well.

    Yet with this smile, he swore that he almost couldn't recognize her anymore.

    \"She was a lie,\" Yunjing said, \"She was just a lie that you wanted to believe in.\"

    ...

    The eighteenth memory occurred only a few hours after, when the two of them made up again.

    \"I'm sorry,\" she whispered, \"I shouldn't have lashed out like that.\"

    \"I'm sorry,\" he repeated back, \"I should've tried to be more considerate.\"

    Things went on. Their lives went on. They didn't speak about the fight again. He was still the same Yue Ze. She was back to the old Yunjing.

    ...

    In the nineteenth memory, a year later, Yunjing brought up the topic of revealing her identity again.

    She was painting right next to Yue Ze. The two were having an informal competition of some sort.

    Yue Ze always liked to watch her paint. Her works, perhaps because she enjoyed painting as a hobby in her past life, always had something original about them that no other artist reflected. Even after so many years of knowing her, he admired her creations.

    In the midst of outlining some details, Yunjing suddenly looked up from her work.

    \"Yue Ze,\" she called out.

    \"Hm?\" He looked up as well.

    \"I still want to reveal my identity.\"

    This made him set his brush down. \"Yunjing, I thought we talked about this. Can we just wait a bit?\"

    \"Wait? How much longer do I have to wait?\" Her eyes narrowed.

    \"Just until all of this is over. The topic of your... father is still fresh, and it's better to avoid drawing more attention to yourself-\"

    \"So, should I wait until my life is almost over?\" she asked, jaw set.

    \"I don't mean that,\" he stated, pressing his lips into a flat line, \"You know I don't. It's just... have you even thought of the complications?\"

    She folded her hands together. \"I'm not an idiot. I've thought of them. Yue Ze, I've really thought of all of them. But you know that this is the one and only thing I ever always wanted. It's what I live for.\"

    \"I can't have that.\" He shook his head. \"I can't have that,\" he repeated again,  \"If you've thought of the problems that could rise up, then you should know. You could potentially be putting your life on the block for this. I can't lose you, Yunjing, because of this. I really can't.\"

    Yunjing stared at him, expression blank. She echoed again, \"This is all I've ever wanted.\"

    \"You can't. You can't do it,\" he reiterated.

    \"It's the only thing I have hope for,\" she whispered.

    \"And this hope is exactly what will destroy you.\"

    Yue Ze was set. He couldn't have her risking her life for this. He couldn't imagine the thought of losing her. He knew that it was selfish of him. But when it came to this, when it was Yunjing's life on the line, he knew what his answer would be. He knew what his answer would always be.

    \"Can't you try something else?\" he pleaded, \"Spend some more time doing other things. You can do the entire identity reveal some day in the future. Just not now.\"

    She didn't say anything to this. She only kept her eyes down, beginning to paint again, this time silently.

    Yue Ze didn't say anything either, picking up his brush as well.

    That was when Yunjing, only a moment later, stopped. She picked up the half-finished painting she was working on, folding it over and smudging all the paint.

    \"What are you doing?\" Yue Ze instantly frowned, confused by her sudden actions.

    She didn't say anything.

    She only grabbed the folded paper, walking out to the yard and throwing it onto the floor. Then, she walked back in the room, going to the shelves and pulling the scrolls of paintings off the shelves, heaping it into her hands. These were all her paintings. Yue Ze knew where she kept her work.

    Yue Ze stood up, eyes tracking her movement.

    She took this bundle of scrolls, throwing it to the pile out in the yard. She then went to the walls, ripping off the few favorite paintings of hers that she loved and was proud of. That was why she hung them up.

    A faint inkling of what Yunjing might be planning to do flashed in Yue Ze's mind.

    He dropped the brush in his hand, rushing to Yunjing.

    \"What are you doing?\" he exclaimed.

    She ignored him, only moving faster and grabbing a candle with a small flame on it. Even though it was already morning, this candle had not yet been put out.

    He knew for sure what she was planning now.

    Yunjing rushed out to the yard, where she had tossed all her paintings. Yue Ze leapt after her, grabbing her before she could toss the candle into that pile.

    \"Wei Yunjing!\" he yelled, \"Are you insane? What are you doing?\"

    \"Let me go,\" she struggled, finally saying something, \"Let go of my hand.\"

    His fingers tightened their grip. \"Stop- Yunjing- stop that! Why are you doing all of this?\"

    She didn't even answer. With her other hand, she suddenly swung over, grabbing the candle to her free hand. Before Yue Ze could do anything about it, she twisted her body, pitching it into the stack of papers.

    \"NO-\" Yue Ze exclaimed, letting go of her and rushing forward, trying to put out the growing fire.

    The flame, starting from the tiny candle, flickered upwards, growing in size. With its insatiable hunger, it ran across all the papers at incredible speed.

    Yunjing pushed Yue Ze aside. She held herself between him and the flames, calmly saying, \"They're my paintings. If I want to burn them, I will burn them.\"

    He hated how calm she was right now. He took a step to the left, and she took a step to the left. He took another step over, and she moved as well, continuing to block her.

    He realized that she had her mind set on having these paintings burnt.

    Even if he wanted to, he couldn't stop her. Yunjing was determined to burn all her works, judging by her attitude, and he couldn't force her to move aside without seriously injuring her.

    Eyes wide, still, at the sight of flames in front of him, he cried out, \"Then why? Why would you burn all of them? What point is there?\"

    She replied softly, \"I just don't see a purpose in having all these paintings. If the world cannot know my name, if the world cannot remember me, then what is the point of leaving behind these objects that no one will remember?\"

    \"Yunjing, this- this is crazy. Are you out of your mind?\" Yue Ze continued.

    \"I'm not, Yue Ze.\"

    She wasn't angry. She wasn't shouting or screaming or crying.

    She was calm. Calmer than ever.

    And perhaps this serenity was what frightened Yue Ze the most.

    He could only stare helplessly as the flames destroyed the work.

    ...

    A sudden memory, one from years before the fire, flashed in his mind.

    It was one where he sat with a much younger Yunjing under a tree. He was nineteen here. So young. So naive.

    Back then, he was thinking intently and quietly about something. So Yunjing had leaned over, smiling at his focused expression.

    \"What are you thinking about?\" she had questioned.

    \"About what I should call you,\" Yue Ze admitted, a bit embarrassedly, \"Yunjing? Or Jing'er? Yun'er?\"

    \"Hm.\" She thought for a moment, then shook her head. \"I don't like either Jing'er or Yun'er. I just like the way that you say my name. Yunjing. It's nice.\" She laughed a little.

    Yue Ze laughed too. \"Alright then. No nicknames. Just Yunjing.\"

    \"And just Yue Ze,\" she hummed in agreement, \"Yunjing and Yue Ze. Sounds good together, doesn't it?\"

    He had grinned, almost shy at this. \"It does,\" he muttered.

    \"It what?\" she asked, \"I didn't hear what you said.\"

    \"I said it does!\" he proclaimed.

    \"It does what?\" she continued asking, a teasing smile surfacing on her lips.

    \"It sounds good together, alright?\" Yue Ze finally admitted, rolling his eyes. \"We sound good together.\"

    \"That's right.\" She grinned back. \"We do.\"

    ...

    Yet only a second after this memory flashed in his mind, he was back in the scene in front of him.

    It was a scene of Yunjing standing between him and the fire, blank determination across her face. It was a scene with a fire in the back, burning up all the paintings she had worked on in her entire life.

    All those paintings, all those memories.

    Burnt. Gone.

    When the fire died down, running out of papers to burn, that was when Yunjing finally stepped aside. She finally turned to look, staring at all of it. Her expression was unreadable.

    The last few flickers of flames eventually ceased.

    Only ashes were left behind.
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