Xueyue wished she hadn't agreed to watch the painting tournament. From a distance, she witnessed Bai Tianai being guided to a wooden platform. Colorful mats were laid on the polished wooden boards where a few low tables were evenly spread out across the platform. There was every tool imaginable for painting and everyone only had as much time as it takes for one incense stick to burn completely.
Xueyue could spot her sister from a mile away. Bai Tianai was being guided by Zheng Leiyu who hovered closely over her as he helped her onto the platform. He smiled at something she whispered to his ear. He was possessive of her, never once leaving her side until the drum signaled the beginning of the tournament.
Xueyue knew where the Bai Family tent was set up. Because their daughter was performing, they had the best view of her, as well as the royal family.
"Oh, darling, where are you going?" Duchess Li Qixing asked when Xueyue abruptly stood up.
"To uhm, get some pastries."
"The servants can grab some for you, if you'd like." Duchess Li Qixing gestured for a handmaiden to step forward but Xueyue instantly shook her head.
There was a grand table set up filled with food ranging from treats to snacks. There were two guards stationed there to make sure that these foods do not end up in the hands of unintended people.
"I liked a few of the pastries brought to us last time, but I don't remember the names of them."
"Oh. In that case, Li Wenmin should go with you." Duchess Li Qixing nodded towards one of the twins, but found his seat unoccupied. "Where did he go?"
"He snuck off to the pastry table." Li Chenyang's lips thinned. That glutton.
"My children sure love to eat." Duke Li Shenyang laughed, shaking his head.
"Take a guard or two, Xueyue."
"Since Li Wenmin is already there, I will be fine," Xueyue said with a small smile.
"Alright then. Please don't forget to drag your brother back before he clears the entire table," Duke Li Shenyang said matter-of-factly.
"Of course." Xueyue nodded with a small smile before excusing herself from her seat. Everyone had left their tent to watch the painting tournament since it was the perfect opportunity to look for a talented wife.
Xueyue approached the pastry table, but she knew she didn't come here to grab food. She just wanted something to distract her mind from the presence of Bai Tianai. She needed time to think and conjure a plan to ruin that despicable family.
She had a new life now. She could turn her back on the Bai Family and pretended they never existed. She wished she was mature enough to forget it all. The thing was, it's impossible to forget all sixteen years of abuse when she had only lived for eighteen years.
Xueyue painfully squeezed her eyes shut. She didn't know how to destroy them. She didn't know how to drag them through the mud because they were just so damn flawless in the public's eyes. What could she do?
"Are you alright?" someone spoke up behind her.
Xueyue forced herself to relax. She plastered a smile on her face and turned around, "I'm alright…" her voice trailed off.
Ning Huabing's eyes widened, her gaze darting from the tournament towards Xueyue. Neither woman had expected to encounter each other. Ning Huabing's eyes trailed to Xueyue's hair and noticed something odd. The hairpins didn't match her clothing. Of course, it could've been preference wise, but it just didn't make sense to her.
Ning Huabing didn't know why, but her thoughts spiraled to the conversation her group had earlier in the tent. Han Jieru was so frightened by the unfold of events that she rushed back into her family tent for security.
'Hah, of course, she would panic. She shot an arrow at the daughter of a Duke.'
"I-I saw that you fell off your horse. Are you injured?" Ning Huabing awkwardly touched the collar of her hanfu, nervously fiddling with her necklace.
Xueyue's face instantly became guarded. "Thank you for your concern," she stiffly replied.
"Oh uhm... no problem," Ning Huabing said, her gaze wandered to Bai Tianai who was still focused on her painting. She already had a fiancé, but still joined the tournament.
Ning Huabing knew exactly why Bai Tianai was participating. She wanted more power than she already possessed. Yes, the Zheng Family was wealthy, but Bai Tianai was ambitious to see how far she can soar the sky.
"Your friend is very talented."
"What?" Ning Huabing blinked. "O-oh right. Yes, Bai Tiani has been practicing for this tournament."
"That's so strange," Xueyue mused and tilted her head. "We all know this tournament is for showing off one's skills, and it's obvious that there's a hidden motive behind her participation. I'm sure you're aware of it, Miss Ning."
Ning Huabing wrung her fingers together. She didn't want to have this conversation. She wanted to run back to her tent, but for the sake of formality, she stayed.
"Every young woman here knows of the hidden motive." Ning Huabing decided to make small talk with the stunning young woman in front of her. When her strings were properly pulled, perhaps, just perhaps, Xueyue could be her future sister-in-law.
"Doesn't Miss Bai already have a fiancé?" Xueyue tilted her head, placing a finger on her chin.
Ning Huabing stiffened. "Well, yes she does but–"
"Then why is she proudly showing off?"
"Perhaps she just wanted to demonstrate her talent to the royal family. To thank them for hosting this tournament," Ning Huabing hurriedly rushed out.
"Just the royal family?" Xueyue raised a brow, her lips tugging upwards.
"J-just them," Ning Huabing muttered, touching her elbows.
"Oh my, it seems I've made you uncomfortable." Xueyue smiled, stepping back. "I apologize."
"No!" Ning Huabing shouted, surprising Xueyue. She cleared her throat and clarified, "I meant... you didn't make me uncomfortable at all."
"Uhm, okay." Xueyue curtly nodded, even though her expression said otherwise. She watched as Ning Huabing's face became dimmer and dimmer.
"Why don't we drop the small talk?" Xueyue finally said, her smile widening.
"What?" Ning Huabing blinked in disbelief.
"Would you like to join my side?" Xueyue promptly asked.
"Your side…?" Ning Huabing scoffed, "What could I ever benefit from your side?"
"And what can you benefit from Bai Tianai's side?"
Ning Huabing's face became serious. "You knew."
"Of course I knew." Xueyue lightly laughed, her eyes crinkling with amusement. From a distance, you'd think they were having a lovely discussion about the latest fashion trend.
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"Either you or Bai Tianai ordered the arrow to be shot at me. Of course, Han Jieru was the one who released it." She shrugged. "But that doesn't change your involvement. Does it?"
"I don't know what you're talking about–"
"What did Bai Tianai promise you to get you to join her side?" Xueyue tilted her head, "Last time I checked, you're the daughter of a Marquis. You don't have to take orders from the Bai Family, yet you behaved like their lapdog. Why?"
"Why should I tell you?" Ning Huabing demanded, scowling. Everyone had severely underestimated Xueyue as an opponent.
"Because it's more beneficial to join me."
"You're an intelligent woman, Ning Huabing. Why waste your potential?"
"I know you didn't mean to hurt me," Xueyue lied with a sympathetic expression on her face. "You were forcefully dragged into the mess."
Ning Huabing bit her bottom lip, glancing down at her hands in shame. She didn't know how to retort to Xueyue's words. She was irked that she was dragged into this mess and wanted nothing to do with it. But what could she do? It wasn't like she could turn back time.
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