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244 Chit Chats of the Artist and Her “Mother”

    Yujia wasn't quite sure how she was keeping her calm in this situation. On the inside, she was mentally screaming, but somehow, on the outside, she didn't let any of this chaotic panic show.

    "I'm not sure," she managed to mutter, her breath somewhat choked, "Depends on if you want to talk like this, or if you would like for me to crawl out so that we can sit and talk like civilized people."

    Madam Zhang's amused smile grew a little wider. Then, she stepped aside, jerked her hand, and stated, "Then get out from under my bed."

    ...

    Yujia didn't expect that her little infiltration-visit to the Yang Villa would lead her to where she was now: sitting at a table and sipping tea with Madam Zhang.

    Once she was situated at the table, the cobwebs dusted off, Madam Zhang had poured her a cup of tea. She slid the cup of tea across the table in Yujia's direction. Yujia only stared at the cup warily.

    No matter what, Yujia definitely didn't trust this woman enough to drink tea prepared from her.

    Madam Zhang noticed Yujia's wariness, letting out a short laugh. She took the cup back, drinking all of it herself. "It's just tea. There's nothing else to it."

    "Why give me tea, though?" Yujia asked in response.

    Madam Zhang's fingers tapped around the handle of the teapot. "You said you wanted to talk like civilized people."

    "Well then, I would like to respectfully decline." Yujia smiled. "I'm not particularly thirsty, at the moment."

    Pushing the tea set aside, Madam Zhang replied, "Alright. Would you like to know how I knew that you were hiding under my bed?"

    Yujia nodded. "Actually, yes."

    "It was simple," Madam Zhang then explained, "Because of the thief that has been lurking around the villa recently, I placed colored slips of paper in a particular order in front of the door, whenever I was out of the room. Anyone who opened the door carelessly would cause the papers to scatter away. Even if they rearranged it, it wasn't in the order that I originally placed them in. When I checked back this evening, I saw that they were rearranged. And so, I knew that someone had entered the room. Though, I have to admit, it was a surprise to see you, out of all people."

    Yujia exhaled deeply. So that was how Madam Zhang knew. The unknown thief in the villa was probably also an explanation for why Madam Zhang randomly quit dinner to check on her room. This woman was much more meticulous than Yujia had expected.

    "Tell me, Fourth Miss." Madam Zhang stared right into Yujia's eyes. "Where have you been the past few weeks?"

    Pursing her lips, Yujia thought about what she was going to say. She decided to tell the truth.

    "I became a student of Lingxin Pavilion. My master is the founder of the school, and I am the Emperor's junior sister. Even if you want to marry me off to the Yu's Old Master, you can't," she stated plainly.

    After saying that, Yujia pulled out her Lingxin pendant that she carried just in case inside her inner pockets, demonstrating to Madam Zhang that her words weren't a lie.

    Madam Zhang raised her eyebrows, folding her hands in her lap. "Ah, but Fourth Miss, when did I ever say that I was going to force you into this marriage, now? Ever since I discovered you, instead of calling the servants on you or locking you somewhere, I've only treated you courteously."

    Yujia thought back to her last meeting with Madam Zhang, in which that woman who was Yujia's mother-by-name had locked Yujia within her room to prevent Yujia from running away from her marriage. That wasn't exactly a pleasant experience, and Yujia didn't think that she was at fault for expecting Madam Zhang to still want to force a marriage onto her.

    Yet...

    "You didn't call the servants on me because you wanted to keep my existence in your room right now a secret," Yujia blurted her thoughts out, "and if you called the servants, the rest of the family, including my father, who are eating in the same courtyard, would definitely come to see me. I don't know why, but you don't want them to know that I'm here right now. You've also been extremely calm about this entire situation to lure me into a false sense of security. If you were fuming or screaming at me, that would also draw servants' attention to this room, which would, once again, reveal my existence."

    The corner of Madam Zhang's lips twitched. She kept her smile, waving her hand for Yujia to continue.

    "You also know that even if you don't lock me up right away, now that you've caught me, I have a low chance of going anywhere without your permission. If I tried to make a break for it, you could then call the servants, since there's no other choice. You won't hesitate to force me into this marriage, so it's not like you've completely given up on the idea of it. But overall, you're keeping that as a backup plan."

    "Interesting. Your thoughts are interesting." Madam Zhang poured herself another cup of tea, sipping at it. "You're right- I haven't completely given up on the idea of sending you to the Yu Villa."

    "I just don't know why you're not immediately forcing me into it," Yujia pressed, "What's the purpose of having this conversation right now? Let's be honest- I know we're both not here to just have a nice conversation about our lives."

    Madam Zhang sighed. "I've had a long time to think about this entire situation. The Yu Family, at this point, don't expect to ever see you stepping foot into their villa. With your disappearance for so long, they've accepted the idea that the marriage will remain a pretend one. What the Old Master of their family cares about is his public image. As long as the public thinks that you, the Fourth Miss, Yang Yujia, are now his concubine, he doesn't actually care for if you're actually there or not. It would be a bonus, if you did, but if you're not, then it doesn't hurt him either."

    "So, you can just let me go," Yujia proposed, though she knew that it was futile.

    "Indeed, I could," the middle-aged woman agreed, "While in the past, I thought that sending you over would patch up the relationship between our family and the Yu Family, which would ensure that the Fifth Miss could marry over as well, I don't think so now. Your father's business is going well. The Fifth Miss has plenty of other potential suitors besides the Yu Family's First Young Master, and being hung up over the Yu Family won't do any good."

    "So..."

    "So, that's why I didn't alert the servants right away. Your father is impulsive enough to lock you up right away. But before that, you and I still need to have a talk," Madam Zhang said.

    "A talk?" Yujia's jaw tightened, thinking about Madam Zhang's box.

    "I noticed that my box went missing earlier."

    Of course she did. Yujia should've guessed. She didn't think that Madam Zhang was all that careful in the past, but with someone who was meticulous enough to think of the entire colored paper setup that she probably laid out every moment that she stepped out, she would've noticed if something important like the box went missing.

    This also answered Yujia's confusion about why Madam Zhang wanted to have this talk. If she called over the servants, Madam Zhang wasn't confident that Yujia wouldn't blurt out the secrets about the box. Madam Zhang seemed like she didn't want the rest of the household to know the existence of this secret box. And so, for the sake of secrecy, she didn't alert the family of Yujia's existence yet.

    "At first, I thought that it was the work of a thief. You know, the same one who stole your five-hundred silver taels," she continued.

    Yujia jerked her head back. "You knew."

    She remembered quite vividly how Madam Zhang pretended that thieves were not the ones who stole Yujia's taels back then.

    "I did know. I just wanted to proceed with the marriage, however. When you came running and proclaiming that thieves stole your taels that day, of course I believed you. I just pretended like I didn't."

    Yujia's hands clenched at her side. "Back then, did you know how anxious I was? Did you know-"

    Madam Zhang waved her hand in dismissal. "I, too, have responsibilities that I must carry for this family. You were getting in the way."

    The absolute frankness and coldness that Madam Zhang displayed was unpleasant, but not unexpected.

    "Back on the topic though-" Madam Zhang went on, "I didn't expect for the box to come back. Yet when I found you, it was a nice surprise." She leaned forward, her eyes wide and unmoving again. Her voice tightened. "Tell me, did you open the box?"

    "I did."

    Madam Zhang's gaze grew visibly more intense. "What did you find in it?"

    "Two hairpins," Yujia managed to say.

    "That's it?"

    Yujia nodded. She wasn't about to talk about the letters.

    "You should tell the truth." Madam Zhang tilted her head, her expression finally showing a smile. "If you tell the truth and prove your use, then perhaps things will turn out better for you."

    What was that supposed to mean? Yujia gritted her teeth.

    Seconds ticked by.

    Was she supposed to tell the truth, or not? What would happen if she didn't? What would happen if she did?

    Finally, Yujia decided to take a gamble. Madam Zhang might've been playing mind games with her, but Yujia decided to fall for it.

    "I also found two letters." Before Madam Zhang could say anything, Yujia continued, "I also talked to my birthmother. I know everything you've done, like the poison."

    Madam Zhang leaned back, her smile still glued to her face. "Is that so? Liu Yuxi, Liu Yuxi, Liu Yuxi. That woman... after all those years, she's still as delusional as she was back then. I wouldn't trust everything you hear from her, if I were you."

    "What do you mean?" Yujia found her tone of voice coming out sharper than she intended.

    "Why should I tell you?" Madam Zhang laughed.

    "Well, right now, my impression of you is pretty horrible," Yujia honestly replied, "Don't you want to change that?"

    "I could honestly care less about your impression, dear."

    Yujia sighed. Alright. She knew that she had a pretty weak argument there.

    "But-" Madam Zhang said, which caught Yujia's attention, "I'll tell you if you do one simple thing for me."

    "Really? What?" Yujia leaned forward.

    "Like I said before, things have been going missing in the villa. Though your father has been becoming more successful lately, it's still irritating to have pests like these running around and stealing things. So, I want you to find me the thief who has been behind all of this. If you do, I'll drop the entire marriage deal, and furthermore, give you the answer and story that you would like. What do you think?"
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