88 Play Your Role
After the entire ordeal was done and dusted, Marquis Ning Guahe urged everyone to enjoy the birthday banquet as if nothing unpleasant just happened. He gestured towards the instrumentalists to begin playing and for the dancers to be brought in for a congratulatory performance dedicated to Ning Huabing. It didn't take long for everything to resume as normal.
Someway, somehow, Li Xueyue found herself alone. She quietly made her way towards the long table of snacks and pastries that were calling out to her.
Li Xueyue looked around and was relieved when no one seemed to be paying her any attention. When no one was looking, she reached for a bite-size cake shaped like a blossoming peony. It was surprisingly crumbly and sweet with a slightly tangy flavor to it.
"Where did you learn to act like that?"
Li Xueyue didn't turn her head around while she reached for another cake. A hand was reaching for the same plate she was reaching for, however, instead of grabbing a cake, he had clutched her hand, forcing her to turn around.
Yu Zhen warmly smiled for her, his smile reached his eyes. Had Li Xueyue been a regular woman, she would've swooned and marveled at his appeal. The moon was high in the sky and its light seemed to have shone solely upon him.
"That tearful act was splendid. Who taught you to behave like this?"
"All of my moves are calculated," Li Xueyue simply said, tugging her hand back. He was hesitant at first but slowly released her. He didn't like to force unwilling women unless he was teasing them.
"I can tell," Yu Zhen chuckled, grabbing her chin and gently squeezing it to his amusement. "From the Palace to here, you love to scheme."
Li Xueyue paused, "I only scheme against them when they scheme against me."
"So I was right. That apologetic stare in the Palace was fake. That tearful sob in the argument was fake. You played your role quite well."
"To survive in this two-faced society, you need to have more faces than the others," Li Xueyue asserted.
"Will you show me your true face then?"
Seductively low, enticing, and dangerous, his tone suggested he wanted more than that. His scent of pine cones and spices were warm and surrounded her, pulling her to him when she didn't want to be anywhere near him. He did things to her heart that she did not anticipate.
Li Xueyue stared him down when he confidently touched the side of her face, his fingers coarse but gentle.
"You don't deserve to see it."
He paused, his eyes flashed with mirth. "Why not?"
"I…" Li Xueyue hesitated. She didn't know why.
Yu Zhen's smile became cunning and mischievous. He took a daring step forward and when she didn't take another step back, he settled a hand at the small of her back.
"Is this a calculated move as well?"
Li Xueyue's eyes flashed with shock.
"You're testing me."
She tried to push him away from her but he took another step towards her until they were too close to not be intimidated.
"What are you doing?" she hissed, realizing there were many wandering eyes settled upon her. "Are you trying to trap me? What is with you men and being so damn touchy."
Yu Zhen chuckled, his chest lightly rumbling. The light in his eyes danced beneath the glow of the lanterns, trapping her curious stare. "Perhaps you bring that trait out in us."
"Don't try to pin the blame on me."
Yu Zhen smiled at how quickly she sassed him. Would she ever get tired of this feisty streak? It was amusing. Her reactions made him want to bully her more.
"I was only trying to point out a fact."
"No one asked you to."
"Oh, but you did."
"It was a rhetorical question."
"I'm sure it was," Yu Zhen scoffed.
Using a single finger, he brought her baby hairs behind her ears, his smile deepening when it revealed more of her pale cheeks. He was focused solely on her but she did not give him her full attention. She was worriedly staring at something over his shoulder.
Wen Jinkai was surrounded by women. He was quiet and brooding but did not reject the advances of these wealthy aristocratic daughters who fawned over him. Commander this, Commander that, they were so deeply in love with him, they were willing to bear his silence if it meant being near him.
Yu Zhen didn't have to look to know whom she was staring at.
"If they act like they can live without you, let them," Yu Zhen warned her, a hard edge to his voice before he yanked her to his chest, forcing her to focus on him. Li Xueyue felt her heart drop when she heard the furious rhythm of his heartbeat.
Li Xueyue breathed out in shock, struggling in his arms, hating that he was becoming more and more unrestrained with his actions.
"Has anyone ever told you your face was an open book?" Yu Zhen only hugged her tighter and breathed, "You're so young, yet there is so much despair in your eyes."
Li Xueyue despised his accuracy. "I hate men like you."
Yu Zhen's smile went from adoring to understanding. "I know you do, Sunshine."
"Then why are you still holding onto me? Let me go, you damn brute."
"But I don't want to." Yu Zhen slightly pouted for her, resting his chin on top of her head. "Everyone is eyeing you as if you're accessible."
She could feel the violent rumble of his chest when he heartily laughed. Arrogant and confident, he said to her, "Are you sure?"
Yu Zhen pressed his lips together. She answered in a heartbeat and was not fazed by the fact that she was completely wrapped in another man's embrace. He could forcefully declare that she wasn't accessible, that he greedily wanted her all to himself.
It wasn't because she was unlike the other girls or that she was "unique" and "special", but because she was a puzzle he'd like to piece together.
She was everything his conscience warned to not meddle with—a girl meant to soar the sky, but if she flew too close to the sun, would fall from all of her grace.
Multilayered, difficult, and arrogant, she was an unconventional woman who knew exactly what she wanted. Someone not afraid of expressing her mind and desires, someone who demanded half the power in a relationship.
She was someone who aspired to fly, but forgot humans don't have wings.
He aspired to tie her down, but could not bring himself to be forceful with her. He desired to hug her tighter even when she resisted with her entire soul. There were so many forceful things he could do to her, but would never dare to. This realization was puzzling.
Li Xueyue blinked in confusion when his arms loosened and he created some distance between them whilst still holding onto her. There were so many emotions running through his eyes, she couldn't hold onto one long enough to understand what he was thinking.
"If your heart is set on the wrong person, he would only make you beg for his affection and commitment that should be accessible if he truly cares about you. The right person gives you these things without you asking for it," he told her before he left her standing by the table, absolutely dumbfounded in disbelief.
He finally had her attention. He could feel it—a pressing stare bore a hole through the back of his head while he disappeared into the crowd.
He could've left her there and never turned back, he could've returned to Hanjian and lived a merry life without her, but a tiny part of him knew that it would be impossible. She had already stolen something of his and he had barely known her. He should've continued walking, but he didn't.
He paused for her, looked back and flashed her a wink before disappearing into the crowd.