"I wonder what will happen to you if you're caught with them," Xueyue said and pretended to ponder the idea. "You will be dragged through the mud and your reputation will be ruined."
She took a step closer and whispered, "And then no one will marry you. Especially, not the son of a Duke, or a man destined to be a Prime Minister."
Ning Huabing's heart dropped to her stomach.
"You will never be able to find evidence–"
"I don't need evidence," Xueyue interrupted, her eyes flashed with contempt.
"If our justice system was that fair, there wouldn't be so many innocent lives lost. In this time and age, the words of an outstanding member of society often weigh more than the truth," Xueyue added on.
Xueyue had experienced this first-hand. She would never forget the night she was left for dead or the events that took place before it.
"As if you're an outstanding member–"
"Of course, I'm not privileged enough to be one," Xueyue admitted and lightly laughed. "But the people who trust me are."
"Did you like the present I delivered?" Xueyue smiled.
Ning Huabing's brows scrunched together before realization and horror dawned onto her. Her eyes widened. "T-that was you?" she whispered, her voice trembling.
Xueyue simply widened her smile.
Ning Huabing opened her mouth but immediately shut it when she saw someone approached Xueyue from behind. She visibly gulped but still managed a graceful bow and greeted, "General Li Wenmin."
Xueyue's eyes lit up as she turned around and enthusiastically called out, "Wen-ge! There you are!"
"Hm?" Li Wenmin raised a brow, lifting a tiny pastry and placing it into his mouth. "Were you looking for me?"
"I was tasked to bring you back." Xueyue chuckled and added, "Before you gobble up all of the food."
Ning Huabing attentively watched the two and listened to their conversation, her eyes widening with each second.
Li Wenmin laughed before pinching Xueyue's cheeks. "My plan was discovered that quickly?"
"I wondered who brought attention to my absence." Li Wenmin scrunched his nose before slinging an arm around Xueyue's shoulders, squeezing it. "Could it be the messenger?"
Xueyue sheepishly smiled and said, "I might've mentioned something about wanting to eat…"
"Of course you did. You're the second glutton in our family." Li Wenmin rolled his eyes before nodding towards Ning Huabing.
"Who's this?" Li Wenmin's friendly smile became frigid. "Is she being an eyesore, Xiao Yue?"
Xueyue turned to Ning Huabing and smiled meaningfully as if questioning her, 'Well, are you?' with the way she was looking at her.
Ning Huabing opened and closed her mouth. She was placed in a predicament. "I… uhm, well…"
"I was just wondering if Ning Huabing had seen who fired the arrows at me. I heard the arrows were fired near where she was seated, judging from the direction that it came from," Xueyue coyly said, glancing at Ning Huabing––waiting for her to take the bait.
"Oh?" Li Wenmin's warm expression became dangerously dark. "Did you see anyone suspicious?"
Ning Huabing tore her gaze from the terrifying General to Xueyue. Quivering like a leaf, she stuttered out, "N-no…"
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"Doesn't seem like it," Li Wenmin snarled, taking a dangerous step towards her. His free hand reached for his sword.
"I'm a friend of Xueyue," Ning Huabing blurted out, her eyes widening as she pleaded with Xueyue. 'Fine! I'll join your side, okay?! So do something about him!'
Xueyue smiled in satisfaction. "Don't worry Wen-ge, I already asked if she had seen anyone. Unfortunately, she didn't. Pity, isn't it?"
Li Wemin sighed in disappointment. "Pity indeed. I would've gladly slain whoever tried to harm you, Xiao Yue."
Ning Huabing gulped. S-slain?
"I know," Xueyue gently said, looking at the ground, feeling a bit guilty that she had dragged the Li Family into her mess. "Thank you."
Li Wenmin affectionately patted her head as one would with a pet. "Idiot. You don't have to thank me, we're family."
Xueyue sheepishly smiled at the ground and said, "It was a force of habit."
Li Wenmin softly nodded. "I know." He looked towards the tournament arena and observed that the painting tournament was about to end soon. "Let's head back to our tent and successfully complete your mission," he teased, nudging her shoulder.
Xueyue glanced at Ning Huabing with a widened smile and said, "Have a good day, Miss Ning." Which practically translated to, 'Don't forget you changed sides.'
"You too," Ning Huabing murmured. 'Of course, I won't forget.'
Ning Huabing swallowed upon realizing how quickly she switched alliances. Whether it was intentionally or not, she had declared her friendship to Li Wenmin. If she went back on her word, who knew what could happen?
Ning Huabing watched them walk off, her eyes never missing his occasional teasing and joking along the way. They had a very close relationship–one that would be too hard to break or tread upon.
The drum rang in the distance, a signal that the painting tournament had ended.
Ning Huabing shifted her attention to the tournament arena and felt her heart drop. Bai Tianai was staring directly at her with an undistinguishable expression on her face.
'How long had she been looking my way?' Ning Huabing thought to herself, shivering at the chilly look on Bai Tianai's expression. It was going to be a long day.
- - - - -
"You knew who shot the arrows at you, didn't you?" Li Wenmin finally said when they were nearing their tent. He was leisurely strolling by her side with hands resting behind his head.
"How did you know?" Xueyue asked. It was better to not beat around the bush with him.
Li Wenmin had a habit of hiding his crafty habits behind an easygoing smile. It was difficult to read his mind. Sometimes, people were fooled into believing they were on the same side–when, in reality, it was the polar opposite.
"You disappear from the tent too often," Li Wenmin responded, turning to her with a displeased expression. "Xiao Yue, it's dangerous to deal with this by yourself."
"Then, why did you head into the forest without a guard?" He suddenly fumed, forcing her to stop walking. "Do you realize what could've happened to you?"
"I had it handled."
"Yes, you did, but what if you didn't?"
"Why dwell on the what-if's? The end result matters most importantly," Xueyue countered.
Li Wenmin sighed. "In the future, things might not rule in your favor. You're very skilled, but you're still a woman who can be easily overpowered."
"That's not true–"
"The Commander easily overpowered your feeble attempts of escaping him."
"You saw?!" Xueyue hissed with a morbidly embarrassed expression. Her cheeks were stained pink and she averted his gaze.
"Depends?" she repeated. "I thought you hated him."
"I hate the fact that he's a suitor." Li Wenmin stared into the distance where the Wen's family tent stood tall and proud, unyielding to the sun or the wind. "But from a viewpoint of a General, Wen Jinkai is an excellent Commander. As a man, he's not bad either. Well-rounded and impartial."
Xueyue silently twirled the pendant that hung from her clothed waist-belt. Li Wenmin followed her small action.
Li Wenmin's face grew serious. "Two years ago, when the Commander left our house, I was told that he gave you a pendant.
"Xiao Yue, do you still have it? It's not hard to miss. Jade the color of night. With his name engraved into it."
Xueyue struggled to give him a proper response. She didn't know why Li Wenmin was asking about the pendant, now of all times.
"Yes, I do."
"Get rid of it. Immediately."