Wen Jinkai surprised the entire Royal Court and curious onlookers when he didn't spare the Princess a glance. He acted as if he didn't hear a word she said.
He fixed his gaze on the Empress and no one else. He was the first to see past the Empress's mask. It was clear as day to him that the Empress was sullen at the presence of Imperial Consort Gu Feiying who was sitting far too close to the Emperor than her rank would allow her to.
Seeing his usual cold shoulder and behavior that didn't seem to care for the beautiful flowers that always flocked around him, the Empress held back her sigh.
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She had hoped Princess Weichun's gentle and soft allure would be enough to sway the great Commander Wen Jinkai. He obviously didn't care for the young woman.
"If there is nothing else, I will be returning to my tent." Wen Jinkai was beginning to feel irked by the desperate glances of the awestruck Princesses. Even the Princes were staring at him, but their gaze was a mixture of contempt and envy.
When Wen Jinkai noticed that the Second Prince wasn't present, he didn't bother to ask why. He was good friends with the Second Prince, and if he wasn't present, it only meant he was bedridden again.
The Empress lightly laughed at the bluntness of Wen Jinkai.
"Go back to your tent and rest. The battle must've taken a toll on you," the Empress said. She lightly patted his cheek one more time, a smile on her face.
Her smile was so sweet and pure, the Princes couldn't help but glower with envy. How come their mother won't look at them like that? Why does she smile so brightly for a son she didn't give birth to?!
Wen Jinkai turned towards the Emperor, nodded his head in acknowledgement and then walked towards the first step of the golden staircase. But he stopped for the briefest second and turned towards the Empress, as if he had forgotten something very important.
"May your beauty be everlasting and your health forever prosperous, Mother," he whispered. Before he could even see her tearful expression, he was already struting down the staircase with his head held high, shoulders back, and eyes scanning the crowd.
Because his back was turned, he didn't witness the adoring expression on the Empress's face as she looked at him. It was one of the rare moments he addressed her in such an endearing term, and not the usual cold title as "Empress." The Empress could feel her shoulders lightly shake with emotion, and she had the happiest smile on her face.
Xueyue, like many of the people watching the scene, saw the Empress's bright smile. She slowly smiled in relief when she saw the loneliness and melancholy fade from the Empress's eyes. It seemed the Empress's mood was greatly lifted by whatever the man had said to her. Instantly, her opinion of the man improved.
When Wen Jinkai reached the bottom of the stairs, he walked straight towards the Wen Family's tent. Halfway there, something caught his attention. The Li twins.
When he made eye contact with them, he nodded in acknowledgement. The twins also nodded in return but their postures were stiff. They stood ramrod straight in front of the tent, as if shielding something inside of it.
"Who did you nod at?" Xueyue curiously asked.
She had been watching the man since he appeared and saw how he exchanged greetings with the royal family with boldness that was unimaginable to the average person. But the minute the man turned to walk down the stairs, Chenyang and Wenmin had shifted their positions to stand guard at the entrance of their tent.
Because the man was so far, she wasn't able to catch his name. Nor did she recognize him.
"An old acquaintance," Li Chenyang curtly said, turning around to face her.
Curiously, she glanced out of the tent curtains, but the man was long gone. Something else caught her eye, a group of women peering at the tent. Even from a distance, she could see their contorted faces that promised of mischievous schemes.
Ning Huabing had watched Xueyue walk up the grand staircase to greet the Imperial Family. She had also seen the tiny interaction between the fourth Prince and her. Just who exactly was this girl?
Ning Huabing's friends took a hesitant glance at her.
"Jie-Jie, don't try to overthink the situation. That girl might just be a distant cousin–"
"Li Chenyang doesn't show care or affection towards any women, even if its a sister or cousin," Ning Huabing interrupted.
"General Li Wenmin also seems smitten by her…" another woman pointed out, staring intently at the royal purple tent.
"Does anyone know her name?" her friend asked.
"I've never seen her before. She's probably new to these competitions," a different girl added on.
Ning Huabing pondered for a bit before saying, "Go and check the competition boards for each section. See if there's a girl with the surname 'Li'. We'll be able to figure out if she's their cousin or one of the twin's fiancée."
"And if she's a fiancée?" someone piqued, as every pair of eyes shifted to the woman who approached them.
"Ah, Bai Tianai, you came just in time." Ning Huabing smiled upon catching sight of their good friend.
"That girl looks familiar," Bai Tianai said as she spread her fan and glanced towards the purple tent. "Too bad I wasn't able to catch a proper glimpse of her."
"Yeah… too bad indeed," Ning Huabing murmured before gesturing for her little minions to run off and check the competition boards.
- - - - -
Xueyue wondered what these women were conversing between themselves. She had hid herself well-enough where only half her face was showing. Since these women were so far away, they wouldn't be able to notice her.
"Chenyang, people are staring at us," she deliberately said, her voice filled with feign worry.
He approached her from behind and took a peek out of the tent. His gaze turned sharp when he saw Ning Huabing and Bai Tianai.
"They're pests," he said, whilst attempting to close the curtains, but she held tightly onto it.
Glancing up at him with an innocent smile, she chillingly asked, "Shouldn't pests be squashed?"
Li Chenyang stiffened at her blunt words. He stared into her hazel eyes, the color of steamed chestnuts. Was her eyes always this dark?
Slowly, he uttered, "Perhaps so."
She closed the curtains and headed towards her seat.
"Are you going to cause mischief?" he asked.
She paused and turned her head to him with a small smile and mused, "Maybe?"
When Xueyue appeared in their lives, everyone thought she was a simple and naive child, but Li Chenyang saw something within her when they first met.
A thirst for revenge or was it vengeance? There were times he would see her stare into the distance, twirling an arrow in her hand. When she practiced the sword, the dangerous expression on her face was not hard to miss.
He let out a low chuckle that Xueyue didn't hear. She was indeed a double-edged sword. Innocent features and docile smiles, the people didn't know what Xueyue was capable of. Why else would she learn skills suitable for men and killing?
She clearly had ulterior motives and Li Chenyang wanted to know what it was.
In some sense, he realized she was a bit like Li Minghua, innocent but deadly. He only hoped Xueyue wouldn't walk down the same dark path as the former.
Subconsciously, he reached his hand out for her, so close to grabbing her head before she suddenly turned around and his palms landed upon her temple and his fingers curled into a fist.
She blinked in confusion before adoringly smiling up at him. Warmth spread in his chest when she tilted her head like a curious little bunny.
"What's wrong, Chen-ge?" she worriedly asked, her eyebrows creasing together.
Li Chenyang's fingers softly uncurled from clenching his fist. He gently stroked her soft hair.
"Nothing," he responded, patting her head before approaching his seat.
He pretended to not notice her curious stare. When her attention was diverted to one of the pastries that a handmaiden placed in front of her, he snuck a glance at her. She happily ate away, swinging her legs with glee.
It was then he decided that he didn't care if she was evil or mischievous. She could plot and scheme as she wished, so long as she remained true to him. An ally. That was what he wanted from her, nothing more, nothing less.
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