Shen Li stared at his young master for a very long moment.
Then, in a very matter-of-fact way, he stated, "I don't have any cousin called Shen Yuling. Plus— I could've sworn, that girl right there was Noble Zhuang a few days ago. And thinking back to it, I must've been dumb to believe that you were a man."
Yujia nodded appreciatively. "I'm glad that you at least believed me back then. But yeah, I guess I'm your cousin now."
Maybe Yu Zixu's nonchalant attitude was rubbing off of her, since she was becoming so casual about this as well. Or maybe it was just fun to play along with this.
"Can Young Master just be honest with me?" Shen Li demanded, his mouth twitching into something close to a scowl and his eyebrows furrowing.
Zixu looked up, then said, "Didn't you say that you might need a helper to organize the paintings I told you to take care of the other day? There you go. Your cousin can help you. Treat her like you would any other maid."
Leaving it at that, Zixu spun around and walked back into his room. There was no room for anymore questions.
Yujia turned to stare at Shen Li. Shen Li turned to stare at her. She shrugged in response. His scowl grew a little wider, reminding her of Bo Zhizhong and how Zhizhong scowled all the time like this too.
But unlike Zhizhong, who was always scowling, Shen Li wiped away his expression quickly, his face smoothing out. He sighed, giving up. Gesturing for her to follow him, he headed towards a separate room in the courtyard. "You heard Young Master. Let's go organize some paintings."
Yujia followed along obediently.
Shen Li pushed open the doors to this small room, and she stepped inside too. Her eyes were greeted with the sight of numerous shelves, with scrolls resting on all of them. This room must've served as some sort of painting storage space. While she observed her surroundings, Shen Li went around to open the windows, letting in more natural light into the room.
The shelves at the front were clean. As Yujia walked further down the rows, she noticed that the back rows were much more dusty. They likely hadn't been touched anytime soon.
She knew that these paintings were probably all the works of Zixu, and it amazed her at how many paintings there were. From the hundreds of scrolls in the room, it seemed like he created quite a new painting every other day, for a very long period of time. His dedication towards the craft and practice was what truly stunned her.
No wonder he was skilled at painting. He practiced daily. The effort clearly showed in the quality and skill of his work.
Now that the two of them were alone in the room, Shen Li spoke up again. "Can you… just be honest with me?" He requested. "I would really like to know what's going on."
Yujia decided to stop messing around. She explained, "I'm your Young Master's junior sister in Lingxin Pavilion Academy. We're doing… an experiment, of the sorts, where I'm learning how to become a decent maid. And I guess my identity is your non-existent-but-now-existing cousin, Shen Yuling."
"Oh." Shen Li gave a quick nod. He already began to work, pulling down a few of the scrolls from the shelves onto a tray he picked up. "I suppose I can accept that."
Not many signs of surprise were displayed on his face. Yujia realized that Shen Li was one who generally kept calm, similar to Zixu's serene attitude but to a lesser degree. Even in scenarios that might take him by surprise, he managed to calm down quickly. She could only remember seeing Shen Li truly shaken up when he received news of his constantly-ill younger sister.
Drawing her attention to these scrolls, Yujia started to mimic the things that Shen Li was doing. "Are we just organizing scrolls?" she asked for clarification.
"Yep, as well as cleaning this place up. Young Master wants to make some more space for future paintings, so he thinks that if the scrolls are placed in a more organized fashion, new room will automatically appear. He's picky with things like dust, so after we clear this shelf, can you go grab a towel and a basin to wipe things down?"
Yujia agreed with a brief word. She was careful as she stacked the scrolls up in her tray, making a triangular shape.
While the two worked, Shen Li started conversation again. "You must have a close relationship with my Young Master."
Pausing, Yujia responded with, "We're fellow disciples, so it's only natural."
"You have a point, but Young Master doesn't get close with too many disciples, as far as my knowledge goes. So, your relationship with him is a rare sight. And if I'm going to be honest, I'm a bit shocked that you're… well… a girl," Shen Li said, "Not because of the fact that you were dressed as a man before, but just that… it's not very typical to see a female disciple. I also didn't think that if Young Master was going to make another friend, it was going to be a girl. Apologies if this is too forward."
She understood his thinking, especially in this time period. Even if he questioned it, he wasn't rude about it, which Yujia would be alright with. She assured him, "You're fine. He did tell you to treat me like another maid, so being forward like this is okay. I appreciate people who are straightforward with their thoughts."
Shen Li exhaled deeply. He bent down to clear the bottom of the shelf. "You're just like Young Master. Out of all the servants, he likes to keep me around because he says that I tend to be a bit more honest." His words trailed off, then picked back up. "I'm glad that Young Master is making more friends."
"He doesn't keep many people around him," Yuja noted. This was the case for friends and servants alike.
"Indeed. Since you're close with Young Master, you probably know about Young Master's past."
Yujia's eyebrows raised, but she looked down. She nodded slowly, dragging her words out. "Yes… I definitely do."
She had no idea what kind of past Yu Zixu had. He kept that, for the most part, a complete secret to her. There were only a few hints of his past floating around in her mind, mostly from when she was taking care of him and he blurted out some words in his sleep about his mother.
"His mother…" Yujia brought up with heistance laced through her voice.
"Ah." The volume of Shen Li's voice grew quieter. "Madam."
Based on Zixu's behavior, it felt like he was missing a motherly figure in his life. Yujia wasn't too clear on the situation in the Yu Villa, besides the fact that the Old Master had many concubines. Could it be possible that Zixu's mother had passed?
"She's no longer here, right?" Yujia asked.
"You're correct." Shen Li shook his head. "She passed when Young Master was still young. I had just begun to serve Young Master back then." He then jerked his head up, forcefully brightening up his expression. "Anyways, since this is an experiment, I need to stop treating you like Young Master's junior sister. You're my maid-cousin, aren't you? Then, you should go grab that basin of water like I said earlier."
Seeing that she could not prod the conversation any further, Yujia decided to listen. She got up, heading outside to go fetch that basin and towel.
Cleaning and organizing the storage room took a little less than an hour. The two worked efficiently together, and with Shen Li treating her like a maid, Yujia thought that this experience was quite valuable. It taught her a few of the nuances of working with other servants that she didn't quite notice before, or, at the very least, made her familiar with them.
There was also something quite fulfilling to seeing a very organized and clean storage room, filled with scrolls. Along the way, Yujia managed to also admire Zixu's works, becoming more familiar with his style of painting and how he developed through the years. She decided that Zixu was wise to send her to work with Shen Li. This session was rather productive and educational.
At the end of it, Shen Li took a look out the window, estimating the time.
"You should probably serve Young Master his tea. It's around time."
Yujia agreed. She went to the kitchens to go get some tea, finding with delight that she blended in spectacularly. She simply said that she was fetching tea for Shen Li to serve Zixu, and the kitchen staff didn't question a second time.
Minutes later, she walked back to the courtyard with a pot of fresh tea. She walked up to Zixu's room, knocking on the doors gently.
"You may enter," Zixu's voice called out from the inside.
With this confirmation, Yujia entered with the pot of tea. While she poured Zixu a cup by the side, Zixu didn't spare her a second glance. It was only when she brought the cup up to him that he looked up.
"I have something for you," he stated, out of the blue.