84 Eye Candy
In a blink of an eye, two days passed by like a breeze.
Li Xueyue felt like she was deliberately putting herself into the lion's den. The Bai's Family carriage was right in front of the Li Family's carriage on their journey to the Ning Manor.
People who came for the celebration of Ning Huabing's birthday were gathered outside the expansive front garden of the Ning Manor. They marveled at the ivory and green carriage that had just arrived. They gossiped about the beautiful Bai Tianai, the glamorous Viscountess Mu Yihua , and the adorable little Bai Yihao who clung to his mother's leg. They seemed like the perfect family, all smiles and grins.
"Goodness, Viscountess Mu, your hanfu is such a beautiful shade of green!'
"Wow, Tianai, turn your head and let me see that earring."
"Aw, look at Yihao. He can walk now!"
"The Viscount produces such good-looking children."
"What an adorable little boy Yihao is!"
The edge of Bai Tianai's lips twitched in irritation. The journey from Hechen to the Capital took forever. Moreover, she had struggled all morning to find the best clothes for this banquet. Despite all of her efforts, she was outshined by a little toddler who didn't put any effort into his clothes.
She sneered on the inside. Bai Yihao was already two years old. Of course he could walk by now! It wasn't like he was two weeks or two months old. What's there to be proud about? Sure, he's cute as a doll right now, but these people should've seen the tantrum he threw in the carriage.
"Tianai!" Her group of friends instantly swarmed her. They squealed at the sight of her dressed perfectly in the colors of the night.
Bai Tianai smirked to herself, happy that she was surrounded by familiar people. The only problem was, where's Han Jieru?
Ning Huabing finally decided to show up and make her presence known. She didn't like the fact that this was her birthday celebration, but Bai Tianai was unabashedly forcing all of the attention on her. She strutted to her friend and smiled.
"Oh, Xiao Hua!" Bai Tianai giggled, "You look so beautiful today."
Bai Tianai's friends exchanged glances with each other. Bai Tianai rarely gave out compliments.
"Thank you." Ning Huabing awkwardly smiled, realizing the stares from her friends. They obviously didn't believe a word that came out of Bai Tianai's mouth.
Bai Tianai's navy blue hanfu with embroidery of tiny stars climbing up the dress, clearly outshone the birthday girl's outfit. She walked with confidence like she was supposed to be the center of today's attention.
"Well?" Bai Tianai blinked, expecting the same compliment in return.
"You look great," Ning Huabing strained out, forced to look away when Bai Tianai's smile lessened. It seemed she was expecting a better compliment.
"Thanks," Bai Tianai deadpanned, sighing to herself. "Wait, is this the hanfu you had the tailor make from the silk gifted to you by the Emperor?"
Ning Huabing perked up, "Yeah—"
"Oh." Disappointment momentarily flashed in Bai Tianai's eyes before she hurriedly said, "Sorry. I should've noticed it in advance! But don't you think ruby would complete your look perfectly?"
Ning Huabing glanced down at her hanfu that was an innocent shade of white with embroidered canaries on the perfect places of her clothes. She had worn a long red sleeve to match the eyes of the soaring birds. Her ribbons were also a bright crimson color. The only thing lacking was ruby accessories that she didn't prepare.
"P-perhaps." Ning Huabing sighed, tucking her baby hairs behind her ears. Had she embarrassed Bai Tianai by standing beside her?
"You're doing that again." Bai Tianai frowned in disapproval. "You'll mess up your bun if you keep on touching your hair."
"Right," Ning Huabing curtly said. "It was a force of habit, I'm sorry."
"I know." Bai Tianai softly sighed, casting her group of friends a knowing glance. "You know I didn't mean to scold you right? It's just… I worry about you. We don't want to ward off any prospective suitors that might come forward."
Bai Tianai adjusted Ning Huabing's already perfect collar. "I just want you to look pretty, that's all."
"I know," Ning Huabing muttered.
"Great!" Bai Tianai exclaimed. "So you'll change your clothes right?"
Ning Huabing opened and closed her mouth. She didn't want to change. She thought she looked fine as she was. As a matter of fact, she was getting a lot of approving nods from the guests with every step she took.
"What? Why? You don't believe my advice?" Bai Tianai frowned again.
She turned to her friends, waiting for their verbal or non-verbal support. "She needs to change, right girls?"
The women awkwardly exchanged nervous stares. They thought Ning Huabing looked amazing. Actually, Ning Huabing was very close to outshining Bai Tianai.
"W-well, I think Ning Huabing needs to… oh my god."
Bai Tianai blinked. What? What was it? Were her lips painted the wrong shade?
"Look…" One of her friends turned Bai Tianai's shoulders around as everyone watched as a larger carriage came to a halt at the front door of Marquis Ning's manor. Royal blue and purple, the noticeable colors of one specific household.
"The Li Family is attending?!"
Bai Tianai watched in horror as the carriage door opened and out stepped a man she never thought would set foot in Marquis Ning's house. The Marquis was taking a sip of finely-aged rice wine when he choked at the arrival of the Li carriage. He was originally chatting with Viscount Bai Sheng, but abandoned him without a second thought.
"Minister Li! It's so good to see you!" Marquis Ning Guahe merrily greeted the stone-faced Li Chenyang who nodded in approval.
"Marquis Ning, it has been a while," Li Chenyang said while turning towards the carriage.
To everyone's envy, they watched as one of the most eligible bachelors of the Capital escorted a girl in blue hanfu out of the carriage. She was dressed humbly, like the rest of the girls, careful to not outshine the celebrant, Ning Huabing. Even so, her simple hanfu, the color of morning skies, became elegant when she wore it. The soft white layers underneath the blue made it seem like rolling clouds fluttered under her legs.
"If this isn't our third-rank Princess Li!" Marquis Ning Guahe happily laughed, welcoming Li Xueyue.
She smiled. "I didn't get to congratulate you on Ning Huabing's victory in the tournament. She was a great opponent."
Marquis Ning Guahe instantly perked up at her compliment. His cheeks were rosy and high from his beaming smile. "I'm so glad you enjoyed the match!"
Li Xueyue nodded in agreement just as Li Chenyang inched closer to her, sending a warning glower to any pair of eyes that watched her for longer than necessary.
Ning Huabing felt light-headed at the presence of Li Chenyang. She did not forget his actions during the tournament and how he unknowingly shielded her from Commander Wen Jinkai's scathing stare.
One of her friends nudged her and gasped. "Is that…!"
Just then, two more men emerged from the same carriage. A familiar face and an unknown one.
Commander Wen Jinkai and another man. The question was, who was accompanying Li Xueyue and who was accompanying Li Chenyang?
"Commander Wen Jinkai?!"
"Who's that handsome man next to him?"
"Oh my god, I think I can die happy right now."
"The air is so sweet from the eye-candies in front of me."
Gossips and whispers emerged from the ashes, until the military family, the Hans, finally noticed who exactly was the stranger.
Li Chenyang pressed his lips together, irked that he had to bring his friend as a date. He originally had plans to have a proper discussion with Wen Jinkai about the conditions surrounding Xueyue, but things happened and one thing led to another and all three men were stringed along to the banquet.
"Oh my god, it's an honor to meet you, Commander," Marquis Ning Guahe pleasantly said, eagerly sticking his hand out in a handshake.
Wen Jinkai firmly shook the hand, squeezing a little bit too hard. "Likewise."
"And this is…?" Marquis Ning Guahe tilted his head in confusion until his eyes widened. He had seen this man before! In the Capital!
"A friend of mine," Li Xueyue forced herself to say with a cringed smile.
This damn Commander showed up at her door this morning. And matchmaking Duchess Wang Qixing instantly dragged him into the carriage to accompany her daughter. Originally, the Duchess thought Wen Jinkai was the date when he showed up for a discussion with Li Chenyang.
In the end, she decided to let nature take its course and have both suitors show up at the banquet. Who knows? Maybe after a dance or two, Li Xueyue would realize who beats in her heart.
"This is Commander—"
"Yu Zhen of Hanjian," Marquis Ning Guahe hurriedly breathed out, not expecting such a formidable man to be in their midst. His reaction was strange, given the fact that Hanjian and Wuyi were supposedly enemies, but it was hard to deny his position and presence.
The infamous Yu Zhen, son of the Emperor of Hanjian and the Second Prince of the country. Before he was a Commander, he was the second-runner for the title of Crown Prince of Hanjian.