Li Manor, Hechen
The journey to Hechen took a few days. While Li Chenyang and Li Wenmin were nonchalant over the idea of going back to their previous home, Xueyue was unbelievably nervous. Everyone had arrived safely within the manor in Hechen.
For once, Xueyue began to pace in her room. She rubbed her chin, unaware of her actions paralleling Chenyang in the past. Now, it was her turn to overthink.
'What if I see Viscount Bai and his family?' Her heart dropped at the idea as her face turned paper white. 'Will they recognize me? Will they capture me back?'
Xueyue glanced at her reflection in the vanity mirror and struggled to maintain her posture. She looked nothing like how she did two years ago. She was no longer that starved child hungry for love and food.
'So what if they recognize me?' she boldly thought to herself, 'I'll ruin them regardless.' Her eyes flashed with self-assurance. 'Yes. I'll definitely get my vengeance against them.' But the question was, how?
"Yes, yes, you're very pretty. Now can you stop staring at yourself in the mirror?" Li Chenyang's amused voice startled Xueyue. He didn't miss the ferocity in her eyes before it settled into its usual placidness.
"Xiao Yue, you look pale. What's wrong? Are you worried about something?" Li Wenmin asked, stepping into the room and plopping himself onto the couch with a plate covered with cloth in one hand. Li Chenyang followed suit but instead of sitting down, he leaned by the frame of it.
"I..." Xueyue didn't know where to begin. If she revealed her plan, what would they think of her? Would they think she was too petty for getting back at her own flesh and blood? A small voice in her head responded, 'But the Bais never treated you as their own.'
"Are you nervous about the competition?" Li Wenmin pressed on, his brows drawing together in concern. He didn't like to see her light skin become even paler than usual.
Xueyue paused, her eyes darting to Li Chenyang and then to the easy-going Li Wenmin. "A bit," she quietly responded. Guilt sunk into her when Li Chenyang raised a brow, almost as if he could see right through her.
"You don't have to be nervous, both I and Chenyang will be there." Li Wenmin patted the spot beside him and Xueyue sat down.
Xueyue was grateful for Li Wenmin's reassurance and gentle words.
"Don't tell Mother this, but I snuck some lotus seed mooncakes out of the kitchen. The chefs were testing a new recipe for next year's lunar new year. Do you want some?" He grinned while unclothing the plate. Even after four years, his usual antics didn't change.
At the sight of his bright expression over the idea of eating, Xueyue felt her worries wash away. She laughed at his antics and instantly nodded her head.
"You're quite the glutton, aren't you?" she teased, watching him place the cake in his mouth.
"And you're the second glutton of the family." Li Wenmin tapped her nose, watching her pick up two.
"Here, have some." She handed one to Li Chenyang because he was on the opposite side of the couch.
"Wait, Xiao Yue, Chenyang doesn't—" Li Wenmin's voice died off when Chenyang took the mooncake and ate it.
Li Wenmin's mouth fell open. 'Did he really just eat that?'
Li Chenyang gave his brother the stink eye, warning him to not say anything.
Meanwhile, Xueyue was completely oblivious to their expressions and happily munched away on the food.
Li Wenmin knew Li Chenyang despised lotus seeds with a passion, but the latter ate the mooncake without hesitation as if he hadn't thrown a tantrum over it when he was four and vowed never to eat another in his life.
Knowing it was best to not say anything, Li Wenmin continued to eat his mooncake in silence.
- - - - -
After chatting with her brothers the entire day, Xueyue had finally fallen asleep from all of the talking.
Li Wenmin's expression was soft when he saw her droopy eyes while she mumbled about something. He gently patted her head as her body leaned against his shoulders and soon, her eyes slipped close.
"It seemed we tired her out too much," Li Wenmin mused, poking her soft and squishable cheek that resembled a freshly steamed white bun.
"We've had a long journey back to Hechen. It's not a surprise she's tired," Li Chenyang responded as he crossed his arms.
Li Wenmin effortlessly lifted Xueyue in a piggy-back style while he carried her to the bed. His brother lifted the heavy blanket and took off her shoes.
Li Wenmin eased Xueyue into the bed before tucking her in. With a final pat on her forehead, he approached the window and locked it tightly. Next, he beckoned a servant to stoke the fire.
Once she was warm and comfortable, the twins left her room and began approaching their wing of the house.
"Why did you eat the lotus seed mooncake? Didn't you dislike the taste?" Li Wenmin curiously asked with his hands bent behind his head.
"I'm a grown adult now. I don't have the time to be picky with my food." Li Chenyang rolled his eyes, crossing his arms.
Li Wenmin tilted his head at his brother's response before shrugging, "I still don't like black chicken soup."
"That's because you're childish regardless of your age." Li Chenyang rolled his eyes. Sometimes he forgot Li Wenmin was the older one and not him.
Li Wenmin rolled his eyes and asked, "Are you excited for tomorrow's competition?"
"There's nothing to be excited about it if we always win." Li Chenyang was honestly very bored with the competition. There were not that many people whose skill was up to par with his. After so many years of mothers pestering him about their daughters, he was beginning to grow annoyed.
"I heard that Xueyue is competing in archery with her black horse," Li Wenmin mused, remembering what his mother told him.
"She was always so good at archery, I'm sure she'd blow her competitors out of the water." Li Wenmin chuckled, remembering the first time they met.
"I suppose I'll sign up for archery this year," Li Chenyang suggested, which caused Li Wenmin to hit his shoulders.
Li Wenmin scoffed, rolling his eyes again. "Do you want to suffer a humiliating loss to her? Because I'll tease you about it for a very long time."
Li Chenyang shrugged. "Who knows, maybe I'll beat her?"
"Or she'll beat you to the ground." Li Wenmin rolled his eyes.
"Besides, if you join, Mother will not be happy. It will be Xueyue's first time competing, don't make it hard for her," Li Wenmin added on.
Duchess Li Qixing would be horrified if Xueyue's first introduction to the high society was a horrible loss in a respected sport. Not only would that be embarrassing, but it would leave a bad first impression.
"Wouldn't it be good if she embarrasses herself? That way, there won't be annoying flies hovering over her," Li Chenyang muttered, his eyes staring ahead of him.
Li Wenmin's eyes grew wide. "You're totally right! Why didn't I think of that?!" Wenmin said, remembering that none of the noble sons had seen Xueyue before.
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His thoughts flashed to the stable boy who could never tear his eyes from Xueyue whenever she would guide Heiyue in and out of the stable. Tilting his head, he thought back to Xueyue's appearance.
Her eyes were always so sharp, yet gentle and understanding. She rarely smiled for anyone else but the Lis, but when she did smile, it was enough to warm a person from head-to-toe.
"Even the male servants sneak a peek at her," Li Wenmin mumbled.
"Her oblivion to her own beauty only enhances it." Li Chenyang tiredly sighed, rubbing his face. "She's eighteen now, but hasn't been introduced to our circle. Despite that, there are whispers of suitors stepping forward. Just because she's heavily acquainted with us."
At his brother's words, Li Wenmin firmly decided, "You're right, you should compete in the competition. Try to outshine her and steal the limelight, so no pests would notice our Xiao Yue."
Li Chenyang rolled his eyes. "I would've done it with or without your approval."
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