"Wait. What?! Why?" Xueyue exasperated, her eyes widening. She couldn't believe his words nor the resolution on his face.
Li Wenmin's fingers curled into a fist, his facade cracking by the second. "It's dangerous for you to possess it."
"He said it would keep me safe."
"Do you understand the significance of a man giving away a pendant with his name?" Li Wenmin fired back before wincing at how harsh he sounded. He unraveled his fingers and attempted to pat her head, but she dodged his hand, her lips pressed into a line.
"Xiao Yue, don't be mad at me. I only want to keep you safe." Li Wenmin sighed, "I care about you, sometimes more than I care about—oh, nevermind."
Xueyue didn't miss his hesitation. Who was he talking about?
"What matters right now is that you hand the pendant over to me."
Suddenly, someone cut into the conversation. "No one goes around giving pendants with their family name and crest on it."
Xueyue swiveled around to meet Duke Li Shenyang's nonchalant expression. He had his hands folded behind his back while he studied her startled face.
"I don't understand," Xueyue blurted.
"When a man gives something as precious as that away, it means he has already claimed you as his woman," Duke Li Shenyang explained while suppressing a smile that was threatening to break out.
Xueyue was dumbfounded by his words, her face as blank as a paper.
Li Wenmin snarled, "If you possess that pendant, it means you are Commander's woman. And no one gets to touch what belongs to Wen Jinkai."
"No buts. Where is it?" Li Wenmin demanded, holding out his hand. "You need to give it to me, Xiao Yue."
Xueyue hesitated, her eyes clouded with uncertainty. Her brows crinkled, and she bit her bottom lip. She didn't want to hand it over. She didn't understand why she was so reluctant.
"I...I…" Xueyue struggled to form a coherent sentence.
Duke Li Shenyang placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Think it over, Little One. You don't have to hand it over today."
"Dad!" Li Wenmin huffed, crossing his arms. "If she holds onto it, she's acknowledging that caveman's claims. You can't possibly allow the Commander to marry her? She's only eighteen!"
"Now, now, Wenmin, curb your anger." Duke Li Shenyang briefly surveyed their surroundings.
Li Wenmin instantly understood the message. There were too many onlookers. Fine. "Let's head into the tent."
Duke Li Shenyang nodded and began heading inside. Li Wenmin followed suit but paused when he saw Xueyue was rooted to the ground.
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He attempted to place a guiding hand on the small of her back, but she shied away from his touch. He tried again, but she dodged him with her eyes boring a hole through the ground.
"Xiao Yue," Li Wenmin called, a slight frown appearing on his face. "What's the matter? I will not hurt you."
"No… but you're going to force me to hand it over." Xueyue's voice was unbelievably tiny and timid. She had every means to reject his request, but couldn't find herself doing so.
She could easily manipulate the conversation and maneuver her way out of his pressing ways, but she didn't want to. She trusted Li Wenmin more than she trusted herself. He was her big brother and best friend.
Guilt consumed her alive. He offered her so many things without wanting anything in return. He treated her like his little sister when he didn't have to. Yet, here she was, denying his simple request.
Xueyue couldn't bring herself to raise her head. Her fingers played with the pendant that the Duchess gave her. It was a two-toned oval-shaped jade with green jade on one side and cerulean jade on the other. It was a harmonious blend of the ocean and forest. Silver surrounded the sides before spelling out "Li Xueyue."
"You overestimated me, Xiao Yue," Li Wenmin kindly told her. "No one can ever force you to do anything you don't want to."
"Not even Li Wenmin?"
"Especially not Li Wenmin." He heartily laughed. "Silly girl, the day I can control you is the day it snows during summer."
Li Xueyue finally raised her head. "Okay."
"Good, now let's head inside. The painting tournament has ended. There's no need to stay out here."
Li Xueyue nodded and headed inside with Li Wenmin right behind her. He stared at her tiny frame and wondered how in the world she was able to tame not only the Commander but a General and a Minister.
He shook his head and decided to not think too much about an unanswerable question.
"There you are, sweetie." Duchess Li Qixing brightly smiled. "The tournament had ended. That despicable Bai Family has won first place."
Li Xueyue's eyes widened. She'd never expected Duchess Li Qixing to use a word as strong and hateful as "despicable".
When Duchess Li saw her befuddled expression, she winked and said, "I hold grudges."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head. 'Was it the same grudge that I held?'
"Of course, you do," Duke Li Shenyang drawled out. "This is a family filled with petty people."
"Starting with the patriarch." Duchess Li Qixing chuckled, obviously knowing something that the children didn't.
There was a precise reason why Duke Li Shenyang had also left the tournament viewing mid-way. He was discussing something in private with the Emperor regarding the culprit that shot the arrows at Xueyue. They already had a suspect in mind, but how their punishment would be carried out was left to the royal family's discretion—unless Xueyue wanted a say in this matter.
But no one knew of the warning that had already taken place in the forest. A threat delivered and performed by a single girl.
Li Xueyue understood the first step to ruining the Bai Family was to target who they cherished the most in this world, as any parent should—Bai Tianai. Once her minions were disposed of, she would have no one to lean on but Zheng Leiyu. That is, if their relationship would be stable after this tournament.
Sure, Bai Tianai could've only participated for the sake of demonstrating how amazing her skills were. Xueyue knew better than anyone else that Zheng Leiyu was a weak-minded man. Jealousy was his biggest flaw and once he realized the attention that Bai Tianai would be garnering, his reactions would be priceless.
Li Xueyue smiled to herself. She could leave the downfall of Zheng Leiyu in the hands of Bai Tianai. After all, a scorned lover was always a vengeful lover.
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