For the remainder of the day, Xueyue patiently and quietly watched the tournaments unfold. She clapped at the proper time, smiled when needed to, and pretended to be engrossed at whatever she was watching. She was the perfect example of an audience member, but truthfully, she couldn't wait for it to all end.
She was well aware that there were eyes that never left her side, people heavily watching her, but looking away when she surveyed her surroundings. Bai Tianai hadn't stopped staring, which meant she knew something.
Xueyue doubted the legitimacy of Ning Huabing's allegiance. After all, it was just a vow through words. Just like every empty promise. Nonetheless, Ning Huabing would be a useful ally—if she was truly loyal.
When lunch was served and the sky became a brilliant painting of red, orange, yellow, and dusk, the first day of the tournament came to a closure. There were six more days left and afterwards they would return to the Capital.
"Tomorrow is your sword fighting and martial arts tournament. Are you ready for it?" Li Chenyang asked Xueyue when everyone was inside the spacious carriage. Even with five people seated, there was still room for more.
"Yes. Are you also participating in it?" Xueyue lightly asked while jabbing him with her pointed eyes.
Li Chenyang awkwardly chuckled. She was obviously referring to the archery tournament where he plotted to sabotage her small introduction to society. Speaking of which, when the tournament ended, there would be a large banquet held. There, Xueyue would truly be able to enter the circle of high society.
After a deafening silence, he finally answered, "No."
"Hm, is that so." Xueyue rested her head against the window, watching the forest shift beside her. "I guess Wen-ge will be participating then."
Every pair of eyes trailed towards Li Wenmin who was enjoying some snacks he had snuck out of the tournament. He was midbite when Xueyue exposed him.
"Ahaha…" he chortled before averting everyone's stares.
"I still haven't scolded you twins properly for the stunt you pulled earlier." Duchess Wang Qixing sighed.
"Think of it as this way, Mother," Li Chenyang began. "It would've been better if she lost to us than to a stranger. Don't you think so? People will brush it off as some harmless sibling rivalry."
"Yes, but you lost. How do you feel?" Duchess Wang Qixing raised a brow.
'Proud,' he thought to himself. "I don't mind it."
"Of course you don't," Duchess Wang Qixing scoffed. "So, what's tomorrow's scheme?" she hummed, turning to Li Wenmin. "You're going to literally beat your sister in front of a crowd?"
"Uh…" Li Wenmin's smile became strained. "W-wouldn't you prefer it if I was the one doing it?"
That was obviously the wrong answer.
Duchess Wang Qixing's expression became thunderous, her eyes ablaze. "Li Wenmin!" She began to question whether or not she had raised her sons properly. Sometimes, she would be so proud of them, but at times, so irritated. Being a mother was honestly, a very rewarding but exhausting task.
"Don't worry about it, Mom. Obviously, it's going to be a female-only competition for both tournaments," Li Chenyang assured.
"Not the sword-fighting one," Li Wenmin winced.
"What?" Li Chenyang snapped. "I thought it was?"
"The rules changed mainly because the sword-fighting women-only tournament last time didn't have enough participants," Li Wenmin spoke up, scratching the back of his neck.
"How come I didn't know this?" Li Chenyang scowled.
"I only found out after looking at all the competition boards. Why else would I be wandering outside of the tent?" Li Wenmin raised a brow.
"Then Xueyue is forfeiting. It's too dangerous," Li Chenyang concluded, turning to Xueyue, "So you're—"
"No, thanks." Xueyue smiled, "I'll be fine."
"As if!" Li Chenyang groaned. "Do you know that's one of the most popular categories for men? You won't stand a chance."
Li Wenmin grinned and slammed his chest as he proudly declared, "Especially against me."
Xueyue scoffed. "I train almost every day, you know."
"I've trained since I was a baby!" Li Wenmin pointed out.
"Really? I thought you were just playing with a sword," Duke Li Shenyang barked with laughter, the warm sound filling the carriage.
"Dad!" Li Wenmin cried out. "You're killing my credibility!"
"Ruining your wooden swords already killed it," Duke Li Shenyang retorted, rolling his eyes.
"Pft, good luck, Wen-ge. You'll need it." Xueyue giggled, squealing when he reached over to grab her.
"Ladies, ladies, settle down." Li Chenyang sighed.
"Lady?!" Li Wenmin scowled. "Great, everyone likes to bully me in this family!" He angrily folded his arms.
"Aw, Wen-ge, don't get so riled up~"
Li Wenmin acted like wind blew past his ears. He jutted his chin in the air and glowered out the window, wishing the trees outside would burn.
"Ugh, thank god, he finally quieted down," Duchess Wang Qixing wistfully said.
"Mooom!" Li Wenmin groaned. "Not you too!"
Li Chenyang rolled his eyes and focused on the beautiful scenery outside.
Xueyue quietly smiled to herself, glad that the direction of the conversation had diverted, which meant she could still participate in the tournaments.
"Wait, I think I'm forgetting something," Li Wenmin spoke up, his brows crinkling.
"Your dignity?" Li Chenyang asked.
"Your brain?" Li Xueyue piqued.
The two exchanged glances before letting out a quiet laughter much to Li Wenmin's dismay.
"Mom, they're bullying me," Li Wenmin cried out, pointing accusing fingers at his siblings.
"You're too old for this, my son." Duchess Wang Qixing rolled her eyes but reached out to pinch his cheeks. He puffed it out and glowered at the floor.
"Sometimes I forget I'm raising young adults and not bickering children." Duke Li Shenyang chuckled with a fond expression on his face. He enjoyed carefree moments like these the most. After the disappearance of Li Minghua and before Xueyue's appearance, the twins often kept to themselves.
"In my eyes, I'll always see them as children," Duchess Wang Qixing said. Her eyes brimmed with unsaid love for the people inside the carriage.
"So, dimwit, what did you forget?" Li Chenyang asked.
"I don't know…" Li Wenmin scratched his head. "I know it was important. Like really important."
"It obviously can't be his brain then," Li Chenyang snorted, earning a loud laugh from Xueyue. "Sometimes I wish he would use his writing quill as well as a sword."
"That's it! Sword!" Li Wenmin gasped, clapping his hands. "The mentor!"
"Mentor?" Duke Li Shenyang raised a brow.
"Yes, Mentor! There was a rumored legendary warrior that trained Commander Wen Jinkai to the status that he is now!" Li Wenmin exclaimed. "I heard he's coming to view the sword-fighting tournament to scout any potential candidates."
"Why would he scout soldiers amongst aristocrats?" Li Chenyang frowned. "I guess the war needs more soldiers then."
"We kind of do, but rumor has it that he's searching for well-bodied women," Li Wenmin concluded.
"Women?" Duchess Wang Qixing turned to her husband and asked, "Are they going to send aristocrats as...as bed—"
"No, darling, of course not. No one would be foolish enough to lay a hand on daughters of noble men," Duke Li Shenyang reassured.
"But, there will be someone there with that ability," Li Chenyang darkly responded. "I caught wind that the Emperor plans to send daughters from loyal families off to the enemy lines."
"As in… marriage alliances?" Duchess Wang Qixing's face paled. She shakily grabbed Xueyue's hand from beside her.
"Hopefully," Li Chenyang scowled. "The problem is, we don't know who they might be. So Xueyue, whatever you do, don't bring attention to yourself. Is that clear?"
"It doesn't make sense. Why not send Princesses off to the enemy lines?" Duchess Wang Qixing tightly held onto Xueyue.
"Two of our Princesses will be married off. The chosen candidates… will be married to Generals and Commanders. Including the Princesses, a total of five will be sent off," Li Chenyang gravely said.
"It was a decision I could not overrule." Duke Li Shenyang sighed, pinching his brow. There were many arguments that arose from this decision, but in the end, five lives were nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands that would be slain during the war.
"The Emperor made it clear there will be no nepotism. Meaning—"
"It applies to every woman present." Duchess Wang Qixing's entire body tensed. "How does no one know of this?"
"Only the Ministers do," Li Chenyang scowled. "The Emperor didn't want word of this to get out. If it did, everyone would start behaving strangely."
"T-then does that mean our Xueyue can be chosen—"
"Yes." Duke Li Shenyang quietly sighed, painfully closing his eyes.
And just like that, Duchess Wang Qixing's entire world shattered.
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