"Ready?" Li Wenmin nervously asked, his brows knitted together. He watched as she tightened her robes and inspected her hair, turning her chin from left to right. He tapped his fingers on the table when the maidservant adjusted the knee-high boots, securing it properly.
"Ready," Li Xueyue said with a small smile, her eyes twinkling and brimming with excitement.
Li Wenmin sincerely wished she'd always be this carefree. He prayed the light would never flee her eyes and that she'd never be in a hopeless state.
However, it was happy moments like these that terrified him the most. Sometimes, happy memories manifest into nightmares that haunt us forever.
He had already lost one sister; he didn't need to lose another.
"I'm sure you already know the rules, but in the martial arts tournament, you win as long as you've scored the most points. The head is worth ten and the rest is worth one," Li Wenmin solemnly said. He placed both hands on her shoulder and shifted her body to examine every detail there was to examine about her.
"Are you sure I can't talk you out of this?" Li Wenmin nervously said while securing the string that held her bun together. He made sure it wouldn't come loose during a scoring high kick.
"You're beginning to behave like Chen-ge," Xueyue teased as she twisted and twirled for him.
"We can't help it. You bring out the worst in us." Li Wenmin sighed before abruptly pulling her into a hug. She rapidly blinked at the bear hug before smiling against his chest and patting his back.
"I'll be fine."
"You better be," Li Wenmin warned and pulled back. "You remember how to block a head kick right?"
"Good." Li Wenmin sighed, "Or maybe you don't have to worry."
"What do you mean?"
"The raffle, remember? Whoever pulls the shortest straw would be immediately sent to the finalist round," Li Wenmin explained and then frowned. "Didn't you pay attention when the rules were announced?"
"No…" Xueyue sheepishly said, inching back when he sent her a disapproving stare.
"You need to listen to the rules next time, especially for sword fighting. I'm serious, Xiao Yue. Everyone pretends to be happy-go-lucky, but they're ruthless."
It seemed the tables had turned. He went from sleeping during lessons to lecturing her about the rules. She wondered if it'd snow tomorrow.
"I'll do my best to not space out when the sword fighting rules are announced," Li Xueyue firmly said, nodding her head to emphasize her point.
Li Wenmin nodded and said, "You better."
Loud and rhythmic thuds in the distance sounded the beginning of the martial art tournament.
The two exchanged a brief glance at each other.
"I'll look forward to your victory." Li Wenmin grinned before giving her shoulders a final squeeze. "You're going to do great."
"I know." Li Xueyue winked before exiting the tent to join the rest of the females who lined up.
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Xueyue was disappointed to see how little females were joining the martial art tournament, but it wasn't a surprise. Few people placed as much importance on this as they did for poetry or painting.
Finally, something caught her attention. Ning Huabing. She hadn't seen Xueyue's entry and was engrossed in her daydream to notice anything. Ning Huabing bit her bottom lip and wrapped one hand on her elbow to calm her nerves.
"Well, this is an interesting turn of events," Xueyue muttered to herself. She forced herself to look away and observe the arena. There were four mats set up in the large space, probably to speed up the tournament. There were a total of three rounds with the final being the finalist round.
Xueyue was intrigued when an Eunuch confidently strolled towards them with an unsuspecting black box. Identical wooden sticks poked out from the top of the box. It was the lottery draw that Li Wenmin was talking about.
She watched as every girl took a stick out with mixtures of emotions. Everyone wanted the shorter draw because it would be advantageous to reserve stamina for the final sparring. The rounds were back to back with only five minute breaks in between.
Ning Huabing's eyes widened when she drew her stick but immediately concealed it with her body. Whether it was a good draw or the worst, Xueyue couldn't tell.
Only when Xueyue drew her stick did she realize how the tournament was going to work. On the other end of the wooden stick was the name of her competitor. Wen Yaoqin. The Commander's younger half-sister.
If she had a competitor on the end of her stick then it meant she didn't draw the shortest one. She wasn't directly shipped to the finalist round, but someone definitely was.
"You have a lucky hand, Miss Ning!" the Eunuch declared as tens of eyes shifted towards Ning Huabing who had the shortest stick.
Ning Huabing forced herself to smile. She was actually looking forward to sparring with Xueyue––just to see if she was the one who took down the guards outside of the tent.
"Congratulations." The Eunuch nodded. He beckoned her towards the path that led up to a balcony that had the perfect view of the tournament.
"Thank you," Ning Huabing muttered, turning her head back. When she saw Xueyue was directly staring at her, she immediately averted her gaze and searched the crowd for a familiar face. Instantly, Bai Tianai caught her eye.
Bai Tianai nodded in approval with an entertained smile on her face. Slowly, her fingers moved, pointing at someone before her thumb jutted over her shoulders.
'Beat Li Xueyue to the ground.'
Ning Huabing strained her smile and forced herself to inconspicuously nod. She needed to talk this alliance-ordeal out with Xueyue. She wasn't sure how it was supposed to work.
'How interesting,' Xueyue thought to herself when she caught the small exchange between Ning Huabing and Bai Tianai. She pondered if it would be a good idea to show her full capability or use only half of her strength. If she showed her skills here, Bai Tianai would instantly raise her guard, but if Xueyue forced herself to lose, then Bai Tianai would view her as an easy opponent.
"Hmm…" Xueyue rubbed her chin, tilting her head while she weighed her options. It's always nice to sneak attack the enemy, but it wouldn't be satisfying. At times like this, she wished she wasn't an indecisive over-thinker. Suddenly, her body jolted. Someone was carefully watching her. But who was it?
She looked around, searching for the cause of her unsettling feelings. She noticed Wen Jinkai and the Fourth Prince was watching her. The twins, the Duke and Duchess Li were doing the same; their stares were a mixture of neutral and positive emotions.
She shifted her gaze to Bai Tianai, but it wasn't her. Someone else was analyzing her from head-to-toe. She felt uneasy as a shiver went down her spine. Her gut told her it was definitely unwanted attention. And little did she know, it was coming from the person that would seal her fate for the worst.
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