Somehow, at the end of the trip, Yujia ended up completely empty-handed, save for a stick of red candied hawthorn she had already finished eating. Meanwhile, behind her, Zixu was carrying a large bundle of goods, ranging from ink to scrolls to trinkets to other kinds of gifts. They also stopped by the pastry shop where Zixu bought the egg-yolk and bean paste pastries before, getting another set.
When it came towards the end of their trip, Zixu offered to walk her back to Lingxin, which she didn't particularly oppose the idea of.
At the front door of the villas in Lingxin, Zixu handed off the boxes of things that he purchased for Yujia to a servant that opened the door for them. Then, he asked her, "Do you have time for the rest of today?"
Yujia actually already had plans to bring her oil paint to Bo Zhizhong and to discuss that. She shook her head, answering, "Sadly, no. What's up?"
"It's nothing too serious. I thought hand-picked flowers might be a good gesture, and I heard that the summer flowers outside of the capital had bloomed. I wondered if you would be interested in going with me. It would be the last favor I would want to ask from you."
"Last favor?" Since he put it like that, she could, yet again, not reject. Yujia gave him a smile. "Alright. How about tomorrow? I will be free then."
"Tomorrow sounds great." He smiled back at her.
The two exchanged farewells, and Zixu left after that. Yujia went back to her courtyard, looking at all the gifts Zixu got her.
She noticed that amongst the things she picked out— mostly art supplies— the box of pastries was there as well. Pursing her lips, Yujia opened the basket and looked at all of the little cakes.
Wasn't this supposed to be for Jing Juan? She didn't intend to buy any cakes today. Zixu must've accidentally given her the box.
Regardless, Yujia wasn't too hungry, nor was she craving anything sweet. The candied hawthorn from earlier was enough for her. Xie Yufeng, who happened to enter the courtyard at the time, was handed these cakes. Yufeng looked at the pretty cakes inside of there, then gave Yujia a brief word of thanks. And then, she walked into her room in the courtyard.
Yufeng had a way of making herself discreet, as Yujia had noticed. Some days, she entirely forgot that the girl even lived in the villa with her.
Once she had all the new items sorted out, Yujia went to grab her oil paints. With the papers containing ingredients and formulas and a box of sample paint, she took off for Three Inks.
At the shop, Zhizhong, who she had arranged a meeting with earlier, was waiting. She gave him a quick wave, then began to explain her paint. He listened carefully, watched her demonstrate how oil paint was to be used, then tried a bit of it himself. Zhizhong remarked, when he finished swatching all the colors on a piece of primed paper, that the paint was miraculous.
"This will surely become a new fad in art!" he asserted boldly.
"You think so?" Yujia grinned with pride.
"Definitely. It's unlike anything the art world has seen before, and surely it will become a trend like the pencils. You know how the nobles just love anything new— you're a genius."
With Zhizhong's approval, the two quickly began to plan how they were going to market oil paint. Yujia passed over her careful notes about the production side of things. Zhizhong read over them and decided to take over the manufacturing side of things, as usual. He would bring her a prototype of what the artisans Three Inks employed would produce by next week. Yujia, on the other hand, needed to begin working on a few big pieces of artwork to advertise the oil paints.
The matter was set like that. Yujia felt pleased knowing that she was one step closer to becoming filthy rich.
Truly, who needs love when you can have stacks of gold and silver?
The next day came quickly. Seeing the slightly warm but bearable weather, Yujia put on an ordinary set of robes made of pale silk and arranged her hair in a simple fashion. Like that, she met up with Zixu, who brought a carriage over to pick her up.
As she pushed aside the door-curtain, stepping into the carriage, she told Zixu, "Could we not have walked there?"
"It's a long walk," he replied nonchalantly. " If we were to walk, it would take us hours. Disregarding exhaustion, there is the weather as well. It's still early in the morning, so the temperature is alright, but when it goes into the afternoon, it'll be warm. We should get to the flower field as quickly as possible, don't you think?"
His logic made sense, making Yujia reply, "I guess so."
"Besides," Zixu added, leaning forward with a slight smile, "we've been in a carriage together before. So it shouldn't be improper or embarrassing."
She thought back to the time where she literally fell over Zixu in a carriage ride, instinctively straightening herself and making sure that she was sitting in a steady place of the carriage. Cheeks warm, she responded, "I've long accepted that whatever you say has undeniable reasoning."
A small chuckle left him. Zixu propped open the curtain of the carriage's window, looking outside.
Not more than forty minutes later, the two arrived at the flower field Zixu was talking about. Yujia stepped out of the carriage first. She expected a small field, dense with grass and only a few flowers growing here or there.
Instead, her eyes were greeted with a sea of flowers.
There was a field that stretched all the way to the distant horizon, with hills upon hills of flowers. Underneath the bright blue sky, a blanket of pale purple flowers covered the green of the grass. Further from that, she could spot patches of other colors of flowers, a few yellow, white, pink, and red ones waving in the breeze. Even beyond the flowers, the billowing blossoms of white magnolia trees could be seen.
The colors of nature, paired together with the blueness of the sky, took Yujia's breath away.
She stood there, unmoving, her eyes still taking in the beauty in front of her. It looked like a scene out of paradise, not reality.
Zixu stepped out from the carriage after her. When she heard the creaking of wood, she turned to him, eyes shining.
"It's… ethereal. That's the best word to describe it. Ethereal."
"Isn't it?" He smiled. "I'm glad you find it lovely."
She looked back at the beginning of the sea. Carefully, she took a step towards it. When she arrived at the edge of the flowers, she noticed a path that had already been walked by someone through the flowers. Raising her hands forward, she softly brushed her fingers against the flowers and began to walk through the sea. Zixu followed behind her.
While she moved through the parted sea of flowers, she turned her head as best as she could, asking him, "How did you find this place? Surely with somewhere so beautiful, I should've heard of it by now. It is every artist's dream to capture a place as breathtaking as this in a painting. Who owns this field?"
Zixu answered, "They're actually wild flowers. I believe there was a project by the Emperor many years ago to decorate some places outside of the capital, but the project was believed to be too inefficient and got cut off. The flowers blooming here today are the remnants of the seeds scattered here in the past, before the project ended. There is a smaller but more organized field on the other side of the city, one where the project was continued. People prefer to visit there, with the carefully gardened flowers."
While he explained, Yujia began to select a few of the purple flowers she found the prettiest, although the more she looked at them, the more she felt like they were all equally beautiful.
Even if these were supposed to be a gift of flowers to Jing Juan, she wanted to pick a few on the side for herself. She also thought over Zixu's explanation, realizing how much more of a pity that people preferred the other garden over nature's natural fields. She already found these flowers so stunning. How much better could the other garden be?
As if on the same page, Zixu then continued, "This one though, with the touch of nature, is what I believe to be more beautiful. As for how I found it…" His voice became softer. "When I was much younger, my mother liked to take me to this field. She's gone now, but I still have many memories of this place. I wanted to share that with you."
Yujia paused in her steps. She never knew what really happened to Zixu's mother, but by his words, she now knew that his mother had really passed.
Turning to face him completely and eyebrows knitted, she murmured, "I'm so sorry."
He shook his head. There was a touch of melancholy in his eyes, but it was the sort of faded grief from many years back, the pain of the memories replaced with the peaceful nostalgia of reminiscing the past.
"It's alright," he said, looking over to the side. "These flowers are beautiful, but the magnolia grove ahead are just, if not more, magnificent."
"Then, shall we go look?" Yujia's lips curved up into a smile, and she hurried her pace through the field, only occasionally stopping to add another flower to her small bouquet of purple blossoms.
It only took a little bit to arrive at the magnolia trees. Indeed, like Zixu said, the magnolia trees were blooming in the early summer weather. There were white flowers and pale pink flowers, nestled amongst each other, making a small grove. With the slight breeze in the wind, rippling through the loose strands of her hair and rustling through the leaves and flowers, the sweet fragrance of magnolia also drifted along.
Yujia walked under the shade of one of the tall trees, crisp grass crunching underneath her feet. "You're right," she commented as she walked along, "this place is even more lovely."
She didn't turn to look at Zixu, but she could imagine that he would be faintly smiling.
Underneath the trees, there were a few more flowers. Yujia saw a delicate white blossom growing from the ground, a few steps away. She reached over and plucked it, holding it up to the light. Then, she faced Zixu, a mischievous grin across her face.
"Since this is the last favor I'm doing for you, will you let me have a favor as well?" she asked, eyebrows raising.
"What are you thinking?" he asked, tilting his head, the smile on his face not vanishing.
"Here." Yujia took a few steps closer to him. "Let me just—" She raised her arm and pushed herself on her toes to reach higher. With the white flower in her right hand, she slid it through his hair, and fell back, giggling. "You look amazing now."
The moment he realized what she was doing, a laugh escaped from Zixu as well.
His hand went up to touch the flower in his hair, and Yujia, with fear that he would pull it out, quickly yelled out, "No, no, let it stay there! For just a few seconds. I want to remember this."
Zixu sighed, but he didn't look frustrated. Instead, she only saw amusement in his gaze, if anything. "Really?"
Yujia stepped backwards, nodding thoughtfully. She held her hands forward, fingers making a rectangular frame and imprinting that image of Zixu into her brain. She wished she had a camera.
"There we go. I can't even tell the difference between you and the flower; you're just so pretty," she sarcastically teased.
"I know, I know," he replied, his tone dripping with just as much sarcasm. He then reached in his hair and pulled out the flower, looking at it and laughing.
"Where did the humble Yu Zixu that I knew before go?" Yujia remarked, then, touched her chin. "You know what? I want to make you a flower crown."
"Absolutely." She turned and hummed, eyes searching for more pretty flowers that would make a good crown, outside of the flowers she had already picked. It would be fun to mess with Zixu this way. And besides: she really did think that he would look pretty with a flower crown.
When she had a few more picked, Yujia sat down by a tree and spread the flowers on her lap. She took one with a long stem and began weaving a flower crown, in an attempt to make one without prior experience. Surely, it couldn't be that difficult.
Zixu took a seat next to her as well, carefully observing her as she wove the flowers together.
And then, he spoke up, saying, "There's something you should know."
His tone was still soft as usual, so Yujia didn't think much of it, casually asking, "What is it?"
The next words that came out of his mouth took her by surprise.
"I don't really like Miss Jing."
Time seemed to stop. Yujia dropped the unfinished flower crown the moment she heard those words. Her eyes widened, fixing on Zixu.
"She's actually my distant cousin. And… I'm not really interested in that sort of relationship, if you get what I mean?"
Yujia stared at Zixu.
She stared at him some more.
And then some more.
There was only pure confusion going through her mind right now.
"What do you mean?" she demanded, "All those things you said before— I mean— you— that— just— It just doesn't make sense?"
Zixu repeated what he said before. "I don't like her romantically, at all. She's a decent cousin, but I want things to remain that way."
"Then, who do you li—"
Her voice trailed off. Her scrunched up eyebrows unfurled. Her eyes blinked.
Things flashed in her mind. The pastries. The way he told her that he liked her, with complete sincerity. The gifts that he brought her when shopping together at the marketplace.
"Isn't it somewhat clear now?" Zixu said.
He wore a soft smile, his hand which he had held behind his back reaching forward. She had assumed that he was just being normal, since Zixu had a habit of walking with his hand behind his back, but now, there was a bouquet of delicate pink flowers in his grasp.
Zixu, with the flowers in his hand, looked her straight in the eye. "No more jokes or lies," he said, voice resolute, "I like you, Yang Yujia. You, and only you. There is not another person in the world that I would give my heart to, and that is the final truth."
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