Apparently, it didn't take more than Zi Yuan's agreement to participate in the play to put Feng Na in a jovial mood again. Forget that Zi Yuan hadn't even rehearsed her scenes, or that she haven't even read the script and memorized her lines yet. Everything was fine and dandy as long as Zi Yuan agreed to show her beautiful face onstage. Not that Zi Yuan couldn't handle simple tasks such as memorizing a few lines of dialog. Of course she could handle it; she was a Cultivator for crying out loud.
But still, Feng Na's seemingly cavalier attitude towards this last-minute cast change amused Li Yundong a little.
For the nth time, Feng Na nudged Li Yundong's side and burst into laughter.
Li Yundong gave her a sidelong glance and tried not to say something to ruin her fun.
"This play is going to be a big hit!" Feng Na said happily. "With such a beautiful actress appearing on stage? Hah! The audience is gonna be so electrified!"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Seriously? Just because one of the actresses is beautiful?" He looked towards Zi Yuan, who was having a conversation with Ruan Hongling. "You're acting like this is a beauty pageant."
Feng Na made a face at him. "What do you know anyway?" She smirked. "Ever heard of the term Attention Economy? Human attention is a precious commodity, you know? The more eyeballs you can attract, the more you'll profit from whatever event you're running."
"Fair enough." Li Yundong chuckled. "But shouldn't you at least ask the other performers if they're okay with this?"
Feng Na gave him a look that said: you're worried for nothing.
Li Yundong just shrugged.
Feng Na sighed and turned to face everyone in the backstage.
"Hey, guys!" Once she knew she had everyone's attention, Feng Na pointed at Zi Yuan. "This beautiful goddess has agreed to be our new Zhao Ling'er. Do you guys have any problem with that?"
"What! Of course not!"
"Yeah! We'd be honored to have her on board!"
Feng Na turned her head and beamed at Li Yundong.
"See? Told ya."
"I've got a problem with it!" a guy yelled seconds later.
Feng Na's confident grin fell away and was immediately replaced with a look of displeasure.
It was Zhong Xiuguo, the guy with the headscarf who would be playing Li Xiaoyao.
"Oh? And what kind of issue could you possibly have with the arrangement, hmm?" Feng Na said in a tight voice. "Do tell."
Zhong Xiuguo was silent for several moments, though he kept sneaking glances at Zi Yuan.
Li Yundong nearly laughed when he heard Zhong Xiuguo's answer.
"I... It's just... It's a little stressful to be partnered with a woman that beautiful..."
An uproar broke out in the backstage.
"Say what?! Are you an idiot?!"
"God! What a dumbass!"
"Yeah! If you don't want the role, just give it up! I assure you that a lot of guys would love to take your place!"
"What, so you want to be partnered with someone ugly?"
"Such an idiot!"
"I know right!"
Li Yundong watched as a deep blush crept up Zhong Xiuguo's neck before spreading across his cheeks. The poor guy was still sneaking glances at Zi Yuan though.
At one point, Li Yundong wondered what the real cause of Zhong Xiuguo's blush was: Zi Yuan's beauty; or the other student's jeers.
He suspected it was more because of the former than the latter.
Once the students settled down, Zhong Xiuguo let out a dejected sigh.
"Fine then, you guys. Take my role if you want," he said wryly. "I don't think I'd be any use onstage if I'm a nervous wreck. I might screw up my lines."
Li Yundong felt movement on his right.
A second later, Feng Na stormed past him, heading straight for Zhong Xiuguo.
Li Yundong silently prayed for Zhong Xiuguo's physical well-being.
To his surprised, Feng Na didn't start chewing Zhong Xiuguo's head off once she reached him.
"Hey… Zhong Xiuguo," Feng Na coaxed. "What's there to complain about? This is your time to shine, don't you see? This is a fantastic opportunity to gain some acting experience! Don't just throw it all away out of fear. Besides, you're doing Visual and Performing Arts, right? Weren't you taught in class how to handle situations like this? And how are you ever going to survive in your real acting career if you can't even handle a small thing like this? Come on... Just… Just don't worry and focus on your scenes, okay? You're gonna be fine." Feng Na waved her hand a few times. "You'll both get into your roles once she puts on her costume. I have faith in you."
Zhong Xiuguo mumbled something to Feng Na. Li Yundong didn't manage to catch what the guy said, but from the look of relief on Feng Na's face, the guy had probably agreed to go on with performance.
Damn the girl could be persuasive when she wanted to. Just look at how she wiped the floor with Yan Hua during the elections.
A while later, Feng Na began handing out the scripts to every performer to do some last-minute rehearsals. Li Yundong took the script but didn't look at it. He already knew all his lines, which weren't that many to begin with. All he had to do was strike a few poses onstage, and then whisk Zhao Ling'er away at the right time. That was pretty much it. His part would be finished after that.
Rather than his lines or the script, Li Yundong had other more pressing issues to worry about. One, how was he supposed to prevent the sword from going crazy when he drew it onstage later? And two, whom should he entrust the Fan of Seven Treasures to when he went onstage?
In hindsight, the solution to the second problem was pretty obvious. Since Su Chan wasn't here, and Zi Yuan had to go onstage as well, he could only entrust it to Ruan Hongling. The situation wasn't ideal (Li Yundong had taken the girl's damask before), but it would have to do.
Now for the first problem...
Li Yundong raised the sword and studied it for a moment. He glanced at Zi Yuan, who seemed engrossed in the script despite her adamant refusal earlier to participate in the play. Then, he scanned the backstage for any signs of Ruan Hongling.
Ruan Hongling was nowhere to be seen, which, in hindsight, made sense. The girl probably had to do her own preparations, since she was also one of the performers. He sighed. Guess I'm on my own now.
He studied Liuhe again. The only solution that came to mind was that he should try to channel his Zhenqi into the sword and get the sword to recognize him as the new owner.
Zi Yuan had specifically told him to wield it, so there shouldn't be a problem, right? Surely it wouldn't offend Zi Yuan's shibo if Zi Yuan herself gave him her permission to wield it?
Li Yundong closed his eyes and channeled his Zhenqi into the blade. His eyes shot open when he felt a strong repulsion forcing his Zhenqi out of the sword.
Li Yundong stared at the sword in surprise. The sensation was freakishly self-contradictory. The repulsion he felt was powerful, yet soft and gentle at the same time. It also left a strange pin-prick sensation in his hand, the one holding the sword's hilt.
Li Yundong had no doubt that the effect was caused by the spiritual signature of a Cultivator. He kept his eyes on the sword, wondering if he should continue.
He remembered the incident back at the canteen, where the Fan of Treasures had wreaked havoc and nearly killed a guy. He removed his hand from the hilt and held the sword by the scabbard instead. It was too dangerous to continue, that much he knew. The spiritual signature of the sword's owner was too powerful; God knows how the sword might react to his attempts at erasing it.
With that, Li Yundong left the backstage to look for Zhou Qin.
As evening drew near, Li Yundong and Zhou Qin joined the rest of the performers backstage for a simple dinner. By the time dinner was wrapped up, the grand hall was starting to fill up with attendees, so Li Yundong pushed Zhou Qin to the audience's seating to secure a good spot for her. After leaving Zhou Qin in Cheng Cheng's care, Li Yundong headed backstage once again.
Feng Na was looking for him when he returned.
"Hey, hey. Come over here," Feng Na said, waving at him. "I've been looking for you!"
"We have to do your makeup!"
Li Yundong froze.
Right. He was about to go onstage looking like an old man in an hour or so.
"Come on, Li Yundong!" Feng Na yelled, pushing him towards a makeshift makeup table which consisted of... well, a table and a mirror.
"We had a deal," Li Yundong said, eyeing Feng Na suspiciously as Feng Na pushed him down onto a stool. "We agreed that there would be no pranks."
Feng Na rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers to get someone's attention. "This isn't a prank, pal. You're doing me a favor here."
Li Yundong did a double take when the makeup artist sauntered over minutes later. For one, the guy was a crossdresser. Correction: an effeminate crossdresser.
"Yo... Yo... What a privilege and honor to be given the chance to do your makeup, my lord swordsman," said the makeup artist in a silky voice. The guy placed a makeup box on the table and gave him a smile.
Li Yundong shot Feng Na a skeptical look. Feng Na burst into giggles and patted his shoulders a few times. "Enjoy your session."
Then, Feng Na walked away with a wink.
That little shit.
Li Yundong stared at the makeup artist through the mirror. "Please show me some mercy..."
Implied meaning: please don't turn me into a laughing stock, thank you very much.
The crossdresser batted his eyelashes at Li Yundong. "Oh, I wouldn't dare do anything to ruin your good looks, my lord swordsman. Otherwise..." Li Yundong saw the guy winking at him through the mirror. "Well… I don't think I'd be able to stand it if your... um... sword, penetrates me."
Li Yundong whirled around and gaped at the makeup artist.
Was this dude flirting with him?
Li Yundong suppressed a shudder and turned around to face the front again.
Li Yundong cleared his throat and closed his eyes. "L- Let's just get this over with."
Half an hour later, Li Yundong felt a pat on his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, the makeup artist was holding the mirror in front of his face.
"There! All done! Have a look!"
Li Yundong took the mirror from the makeup artist and studied his own appearance.
"Your swordsman's all good, Feng Na!" the makeup artist yelled.
Feng Na shouted something in reply, but then Li Yundong didn't quite catch her words because he was too busy marveling at how remarkably different he looked.
His face right then was the very definition of a frail, old man. The makeup artist had even done something to give his forehead some kind of wrinkle effect.
"Let me see!" Feng Na stumbled over and began inspecting his face. A minute later, Feng Na gave the makeup artist a thumbs up. "This is perfect! Great job!"
Before Li Yundong could ask the makeup artist about the wrinkles, Feng Na pulled him away from the makeup table.
"Where are we going now?" Li Yundong grumbled.
"To the bathroom," Feng Na said. "You have to change into your costume."
Inside the bathroom, Feng Na "decorated" his face with a fake beard and a fake moustache. Then she gave him a white wig and a long, white robe. After that, Feng Na pushed him into an empty stall and asked him to change into the robe.
The ends of the white wig reached just below his shoulders after he put it on. The wig didn't bother him that much, not as much as the beard and the moustache did anyway.
Everyone (except Zi Yuan, since she was nowhere to be seen) was in awe when he returned to the backstage in his full master swordsman get-up. They had even attached some kind of sling to the sheath so that he could wear the sword on his back.
"Ever thought of joining a cosplay competition?" Feng Na remarked casually. "You might win with this get-up."
Li Yundong glared the woman. Cosplay? Seriously? He wouldn't even be dressing up like this if it weren't for Feng Na's clever contrivance.
Li Yundong ignored Feng Na's remark and decided that it was time for him to step into his role: meaning, he should start acting like a badass swordsman who would slice anyone's head off if they dared approach him.
He walked over towards an empty chair and sat down regally. Minutes later, he felt someone's eyes on him. When he turned, he saw that it was Jiang Xiuxiu, who had just returned from the fitting room fully dressed in her own costume.
Li Yundong surveyed the backstage for a moment. There were still no signs of Ruan Hongling and Zi Yuan. The event had already begun half an hour ago when he was still doing his makeup. Ruan Hongling probably wouldn't be here until she was done with her performance, so he would have to wait before he passed the Fan of Seven Treasure to her.
Suddenly, Feng Na returned to the backstage with a student in tow.
"Take a picture of me and the legendary swordsman, would you?" said Feng Na, handing the guy her phone.
Li Yundong chuckled and indulged Feng Na while she struck various poses.
Alas, Feng Na's genius idea to start taking selfies with him was a slippery slope; soon, every student in the backstage were crowding his space, begging for selfies.
Around his eleventh selfie, some girl who was striking a pose—some kind of weird, hipster pose that involves pouty lips—turned away from the camera to face him.
"Aww... Why won't you smile a little, master swordsman?"
I'll smile when you leave me in peace.
Li Yundong stroked his fake beard and gave the students a stern look. "I could show you my smile..." Li Yundong suddenly reached behind his back and stroked the hilt of his sword. "But then I would have to kill you." He smirked. "I have a reputation to uphold, you see..."
The students left him in peace after that.
Zi Yuan appeared at the backstage around the same time when Ruan Hongling began her performance onstage.
Li Yundong chuckled when he took note of Zi Yuan's appearance. He decided right then that sophisticated updos and flowing gowns fit Zi Yuan's image better. That wasn't to say that she didn't look good in her costume though. Even with her hair pulled into a double braid, and her figure clad in a green shirt and a pair of green pants, Zi Yuan looked absolutely stunning. Not to mention that she had the Zhao Ling'er look down pat.
"Does my costume look strange?" Zi Yuan whispered once she was standing beside him. "Why does everyone keep staring at me like that?"
Li Yundong resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
Because you're a frigging goddess, that's why...
He cleared his throat instead.
"They're staring because you're beautiful, Zi Yuan," he said. "Surely you must know that already."
After that, they stood side-by-side in companionable silence, watching Ruan Hongling show off her calligraphy skills onstage.
The silence was short-lived as students soon began whispering behind their backs. It didn't take Li Yundong long to realize that he and Zi Yuan were the topic of the students' gossip.
"Hey, hey. Those two look great together, don't you think?"
"Yeah, just like a Shenxian couple or something."
"But the age gap though..."
"Tsk! Age is just a number, you idiot."
"Besides, we were talking about the vibes they are giving out."
"Mm-hmm. Their vibes totally match!"
There was a dreamy sigh. "Ah… A god and a goddess. What a pair."
Li Yundong rolled his eyes and glanced at Zi Yuan to see if she was affected by the students' idle talk.
"Just ignore them," Li Yundong whispered when he noticed Zi Yuan's slightly flustered appearance. "They're just a bunch of gossips."
Zi Yuan gave him a tight smile before looking away.
Ruan Hongling entered the backstage right after her performance ended.
"Hehe. I'm done, Elder Sister Zi Yuan," she said, grinning at Zi Yuan. "You guys are up soon, I think."
Li Yundong gave Ruan Hongling a pointed look, then tilted his head towards the Fan of Seven Treasures.
Ruan Hongling got the cue right away and gave him a nod.
"You'll look after it?" Li Yundong whispered when he knew Ruan Hongling was standing beside him.
"Leave it to me," Ruan Hongling said, then paused to look at him. She snorted a moment later. "Just don't embarrass Elder Sister Zi Yuan onstage."
"Thanks." Li Yundong chuckled. "But I'm afraid it's the other way around."
Ruan Hongling rolled her eyes at him before looking away.
"Alright guys! Get ready! We're up!" Feng Na shouted.
Shortly, the stage curtains began to rise, and the grand hall erupted in a round of thunderous applause. The stage lights flicked on, giving Li Yundong a sense of deja vu. He'd been here before, standing on the same stage, in front of the same audience.
The stage curtains stopped rising.
Li Yundong took a deep breath and stared at the dazzling stage lights above them.
So it begins...