Li Wenmin strolled into the tent after disappearing yet again. No one knew where he wandered off, but they didn't mind. He glanced at Xueyue's plate of pastries and stole one from her.
Narrowly, he dodged the small kick aimed for his shin. Chuckling, he patted her head to which she scrunched her nose.
"Now that all the greetings are done, the competition will start soon. Archery will kick off the competition, so get ready." Li Wenmin nodded towards the handmaidens who quickly stepped forward.
"Follow them and they'll help you change into your attire. Chenyang has already inspected the equipment and reserved one for you," he added while keeping a poker face on, as if he hadn't hatched a secret plan with his twin behind her back.
Xueyue was rather perceptive and she eyed the suspicious-looking twins. Although their expressions were neutral and nothing seemed wrong, their eyes wouldn't make contact with hers. She crossed her arms.
"Is there something I should know?" she asked them, raising one brow.
"Of course not!"
The twins instantaneously replied at the same time, causing the Duke to chuckle and Xueyue to frown.
"What is it?"
Just then, the sound of loud celebratory drums could be heard. The sound was heavy and strong, ringing throughout the enormous field.
"That's the signal drum for the people to get ready. You have less than ten minutes to change, so hurry." Li Chenyang pushed her in the direction of the handmaidens who quickly guided Xueyue out of the tent.
Watching the retreating figure of Xueyue, the twins let out a sigh of relief. That was a very close call.
- - - - -
Xueyue grumbled to herself the entire time the handmaids changed her clothing. She was curious about what the twins were planning. She could only hope it wasn't a plan that would give her an unfair victory.
The handmaids didn't pay any attention to their Young Miss's distraught expression. Instead, they quickly dressed her and were finished in less than ten minutes.
Xueyue's headpins were replaced by two hand-weaved threads that pulled her hair up. Her thick shawl and spring hanfu were switched with body-hugging clothing, trousers, and boots that reached her knees.
Xueyue stepped through the path leading to the archery field where she was handed a bow and quiver filled with purple-tip arrows. Carved into each individual arrow stick was the Li family name.
Xueyue's sullen mood immediately brightened when she saw a familiar black horse being led her way. As usual, the stubborn horse rebelled against the person handling him. He gnawed and bit at the reins, roughly stomping the ground like a child.
"Heiyue!" Xueyue chuckled, her voice instantly reaching the horse's ears. Heiyue's head jerked, his ears twitching in the direction he heard the voice from.
Xueyue didn't realize that by calling out the horse's name loudly, she had garnered the attention of curious onlookers.
As a matter of fact, the people had been staring at her ever since she walked out of the Li's family tent.
Just exactly who was that girl? Wasn't Duke and Duchess Li's daughter named Minghua? Did they conceive another daughter? How come they've never heard of a Xueyue?
Heiyue stopped struggling when he heard approaching footsteps. At the sight of the calm horse, the stable boy let his guard down. That proved to be an immediate mistake. In less than a second, Heiyue had kicked off his legs.
Not wanting to be dragged by the swift horse, the stable boy quickly released the leather reins. Without anyone holding him back, Heiyue ran straight towards Xueyue.
"Woah there, calm down." Xueyue laughed when the horse was about to run past her. Heiyue paused a few steps away and trotted towards her, nudging into the air to which Xueyue giggled. He had misjudged their distance.
He snorted in response and she gently patted his mane to which he nudged her hand, seeking for a treat. "Alright alright, here's your sugar cube." She tossed the treat into his mouth.
"You're such a child," Xueyue mused when he happily munched the treat.
"Now, be good okay? There are a lot of other horses today. You can't be violent with any of them, okay?" Heiyue tilted his head. "Just follow my lead," she whispered before swiftly hopping onto the horse.
The entire time she interacted with Heiyue, there were two pairs of eyes watching her.
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Wen Jinkai instantly recognized her voice the minute she proudly called out to her blind horse. His keen eyes were able to see the horse's glassy eyes when everyone else was too focused on the horse's muscular physique.
Wen Jinkai tried to ignore her bewitching smile and bright eyes, the color of brown autumn leaves.
Her voice was just as he had last remembered, clear and soft. Like the lingering scent of Spring, she was a girl that he constantly thought about. It irked him that he didn't get to see the face of his savior, but he knew he had to leave the household as soon as possible. He had an endless list of enemies and he wanted none of them to attack the family of the girl who saved his life.
Xueyue bent down and whispered to Heiyue, "Now, there will be a lot of noises, but don't fret. All you have to do is listen to my voice and everything will be alright."
She didn't know why, but every time she talked to Heiyue, it was as if this horse knew what she was saying. Perhaps it was because of their two long years together, or perhaps it was simply because the horse was too intelligent.
She knew she had to always reassure him when he was around unfamiliar horses. She learned her lesson a year ago when Li Wenmin went horseback riding with her on a new horse and Heiyue nearly trampled the poor thing. He obviously didn't like strangers.
Xueyue adjusted her body and sat taller when a thundering sound was heard in the distance. The tournament drums began playing.
Heiyue gave a startled jerk and neighed in displeasure, slightly stomping on the ground.
"Shh, it's alright," Xueyue whispered again, gently patting Heiyue's mane.
"Just listen to the sound of my voice and the birds in the sky." She ran her finger through the luxurious locks of his mane. To please the stubborn horse, she fed it another sugar cube.
A loud voice spoke in the distance. "The competition will commence in 3... 2...1!"
Just then, the first bird was thrown into the air. One after the other, cages were unlocked as birds soared the skies. Plates and cloth balls were also tossed. The plate was worth one point, the balls worth two, and the birds worth ten.
Xueyue released her arrows so quickly, the people were startled with her precision. Each time she shot her arrow, a bird dropped dead.
In her frenzy of wanting to win the competition, she didn't realize the people's awestruck and bewildered expression. Nor did she see Li Chenyang on top of his horse, competing against her. He, too, only cared about the birds.
Together, the Li siblings dominated the archery field. Arrows with the Li Family's symbol flew left and right, never missing a target. It was a whirlwind of purple and blue-tip arrows piercing through birds and clay plates.
During the last thirty seconds of the competition, a crazy bird was released from its cage. It soared high into the sky with erratic speed. It flew towards the sun, blinding anyone that dared to glance up. The final bird was worth a whopping fifty points.
As Li Chenyang was closer to the bird he let his guard down. He thought his close distance would be more advantageous.
He pulled back his arrow and steadied his aim. Patiently, he waited for the bird to become more visible.
He sharply gasped when a whirl flew straight past his hand, grazing his skin. Without warning, the bird dropped dead. It was a clean and painless death.
Li Chenyang's head snapped backward. He breathed out in shock at the sight of Xueyue standing on top of her saddle. She utilized the trust between her and the horse to stand directly on the saddles. When standing, she was taller than Li Chenyang who was sitting on the horse.
When the bird fell, the people cheered and clapped, thinking it was Li Chenyang who shot it down.
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