Whispers spread like fire when a young woman stepped out of the enormous Li carriage accompanied by the Capital's infamous twins.
"Goodness gracious, who is that?"
"Did any nobleman have a daughter with that face?"
Mothers discreetly chartered amongst themselves behind their spread fans. Their eyes never left the large carriage fit for ten people.
Meanwhile, the daughters murmured amongst themselves with curiosity and a hint of menace. They weren't sure if the young woman was a useful pawn or a knight that would prevent them from approaching the twins.
"Let me help you down, Xiao Yue." Li Wenmin offered while resisting the urge to smile when he saw her eyeing the small steps placed in front of the carriage.
"There are stairs for a reason," Li Chenyang pointed out, but nonetheless, offered her a hand. His brother rolled his eyes and a smug smirk surfaced when Xueyue politely declined his hand and walked down the carriage herself.
"Thank you," she said, regardless.
"Don't thank people for not doing anything." Li Chenyang shook his head at her naivety before approaching his parents who had exited the carriage first. He was sulking that she had outgrown his help.
Li Wenmin's shoulder shook with contained laughter, but it died down when he noticed how many pairs of eyes were stuck on Xueyue. She was too busy observing the colorful tents and beautiful decorations in the air to realize the stares.
Li Wenmin inched closer to Xueyue and fastened the traditionally-knotted buttons of her shawl. He debated the idea of flinging the material to cover her face but knew she'd fling a punch his way if he did that. Throughout the two years, her feisty side was finally being revealed, slowly, but surely.
He wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry at her antics.
Duke Li Shenyang also noticed the probing stares centered on them. He cleared his throat and instantly, guards swarmed Xueyue. They surrounded her like a thick barrier, which prevented other people from catching another glance at her.
"Stay close to us, child. If you'd like to wander off, do it with a guard," Duke Li Shenyang calmly told her, to which she immediately nodded.
"Okay," she responded, shifting her eyes from the multicolored tassels hung in the air to the stern Duke who smiled slightly with approval.
"Let's head to our tents now," he said before turning to his wife with a warm smile. "It's warm in there. I had the servants stroke the charcoal before we arrived here."
Duchess Li Qixing glanced at the heavily armed guards around Xueyue. She huffed, "I don't think the guards are necessary. They're preventing suitors from getting a good view of her."
The twins simultaneously responded, much to their mother's dismay. The Duchess opened her mouth to respond but was guided away by the Duke.
Li Wenmin and Li Chenyang followed after them with nonchalance. It wasn't evident, but they were standing guard for Xueyue – further preventing her from being seen.
Meanwhile, Xueyue was completely oblivious to the heavy and curious gazes centered on her as she continued to curiously look around, but couldn't see much because of her human barriers.
As everyone watched them disappear into the distance, whispers arise again.
"Do you think she's Duke and Duchess Li's famed daughter that was kept hidden for all these years?"
An older woman slowly shook her head. "This young woman only resembles the Duke. there's not a single trace of the Duchess in her face. Their daughter, Minghua, was rumored to bear a striking resemblance to both her parents, not just one."
"Well, looks change when they get older," someone tried to argue, but was ignored by another excited mother.
"Should we introduce our sons to Duchess Li and the young woman? They could produce such beautiful babies!"
The same older woman from previously hummed. "That would be impossible. Have you seen her? It'd be a miracle if she didn't have a fiancé."
Li Wenmin's gaze hardened at the whispers that reached his ears. He frowned and tugged Xueyue closer to him even though she was already squashed between the twins.
Together, they walked towards the navy tent that was located the closest to the Imperial Family's golden tent that was lined with a velvet finish.
All of the tents were lined up in a slightly curved formation, but they were very spread out so that every family could have decent privacy before heading to the tournament area to monitor their children.
The closer the tents to the royal family, the wealthier and more powerful these families were. To the right of the Imperial Family's golden tent was the Li Family and to the left of the golden tent was the Wen Family.
When Xueyue walked closer to the tent, she finally heard the whispers. She noticed the curious and coy glances from multiple nobles that glanced at her while they talked amongst themselves. When they noticed her stare, they smoothly glanced away.
"Why are they staring?"
"Because they're nosy and have nothing better to do with their lives. Ignore them," Li Chenyang instantly answered as he ushered her into the tent where warmth immediately enveloped her.
Duke Li Shenyang and Duchess Li Qixing headed off to pay their respects to the Imperial Family first. Usually, the parents would approach with their children, but Duke Li didn't want to draw any more unwanted attention to the children. Thus, they decided to have the children introduce themselves later.
"Start the heater again. It's not warm enough." Li Wenmin nodded to the servants within the expansive tent. Located inside of it was a furnace, a polished table, and multiple chairs enough for the entire Li Family.
"This should warm you up faster." Wenmin doted on her by placing two big freshly steamed buns onto her hand.
Xueyue stared at the buns and suddenly felt self-conscious.
Wouldn't she look unladylike and improper if she ate like how she normally does, like a glutton? Most noble ladies were expected to take food in small bites and eat very little. Yet, Xueyue sat there, like a lost bunny, with two giant buns in her hand.
Hesitating under the heavy gazes of others on her, she took a small and reluctant nibble of the bun.
Li Wenmin tilted his head towards the servants who immediately lowered the tent's curtains.
"Eat as you usually do, ignore the stares." Li Wenmin patted her head, grabbing a bun and stuffing it into his mouth to show her he didn't care about their public image.
Xueyue soon ate like how she usually would.
Li Chenyang finally had a small smile as he watched her eat. She was back to normal and her shoulders were finally more relaxed.
"I'll be right back." Li Chenyang nodded to Li Wenmin before walking out of the tent. The minute he did so, he garnered every woman's attention.
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Li Chenyang headed to the archery fields to examine the posts and equipment. He was prepared to walk back, but then smelled the familiar scent of Tangyuan . His gaze followed the scent and located a few servants walking around with a tray filled with bowls of warm, piping hot Tangyuan, heading towards every tent's direction.
Just when he approached the servant and grabbed a bowl, a group of girls approached him. His lips tilted down at the heavily scented perfumes that immediately wafted to his nose.
"Greetings to Second Young Master Li." The "leader" of the group of girls, Ning Huabing stepped forward and presented an elegant bow.
Ning Huabing lifted her head when Li Chenyang hummed. He was polite, but very closed off in the way he glanced at her.
Her friends accompanying her exchanged excited glances with each other. Ning Huabing was the Beauty of Hechen, second to Bai Tianai.
With luscious, silky hair, perky nose, and dewy eyes, she looked like the ideal damsel in distress that provoked the protective nature of men.
On top of that, many mothers wanted her because she was always filial. Good at painting, embroidery, and the arts, she was a frequent winner in these fields in the competition.
As good as she was, Li Chenyang was annoyed with her father who purposely bragged about her, hoping he could strike up a marriage plan.
"I'd love to engage in pleasantries, but I'm quite busy. Have a good day, Miss Ning," Li Chenyang cooly responded as he turned his back to her. He was very mindful of his manners in public. It could affect his future position as the Prime Minister.
"Ah, please wait–" Ning Huabing panicked, reaching out for him.
Li Chenyang was prepared to ignore her, but he met his mother's pressuring gaze. 'Entertain the girl, won't you?' was her message.
He glowered to himself. He couldn't disrespect the eldest daughter of the respectable Ning Family.
"What is it?" Li Chenyang strained to maintain his tight-lipped smile.
He wanted to go back to Xueyue and Wenmin, well, more the former than the latter. He cursed himself for reaching for the bowl of Tangyuan, when the servants could've just brought it to the tent by now. He felt as if they weren't fast enough and that was why he took a bowl, but now, he regretted his decision.
"I heard that you will be competing in the archery competition…"
"Yes. What about it?"
Ning Huabing shyly presented him a forest green and silver-colored thread with an ornament hanging from it. "I made this for you… you can tie it around your waist as a sign of good luck."
"I appreciate the thought, however, it'd be best if you present it to someone worthy." He decided to humor her while rejecting her at the same time. "Have a good day," he curtly said before storming off, leaving Ning Huabing stunned and pitifully glancing at the tassel.
Li Chenyang angrily grumbled to himself. The Tangyuan soup was now cold.
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