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166 A Challenge for the Artis

    At first, Yujia expected that Zhizhong requested to meet up with her at Three Inks to discuss the Emperor's decree. Though she was less obsessed with earning money at this point, it was the order of the Emperor, after all. They couldn't just ignore it.

    Yet when she stepped into the shop, Zhizhong greeted her with, "Let's go do something fun!"

    Yujia's lips curled down while she unclasped the veil she put on this morning before she left. "I thought we were working on the decree's order. The day before yesterday, I worked on all of the plans with Gao Yi. Do you want to see?"

    "Oh, that. I already saw." Zhizhong waved his hand impatiently, then gestured at Gao Yi, who was by the side. "I dropped by yesterday to check and got a few of your plans from him. There were some flaws in it, but I'm sure that we're all busy people, so I hired a few advisers and gave the plan to them. They'll work on it, so we don't have to worry about it anymore."

    "You did... what?"

    Zhizhong blinked, then repeated, "I gave the job of carrying out the decree to some other people." Seeing Yujia's expressions morph, Zhizhong quickly added on, "They're all trustworthy; I promise! And the result that they will do will be much better than our own plans, and..."

    "I wanted to figure this out myself, though," Yujia responded, "or at least with a few other people. But I still wanted to be a part of it. How could I start something, and then just push off my responsibilities to someone else?"

    She looked to the side and pulled one arm closer to herself. Zhizhong stared at her blankly, as if he didn't understand what she was saying.

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    "But- it's all busy work. If you don't have to do it, why work on it? There's nothing different that will come out of it regardless of who works on it-" He paused in the middle of his words. Zhizhong looked at her, then looked down, then looked back up. "Alright. I don't understand you, but I'll try to. I'll talk things out with the people I- er- hired, and see what I can do to have them work with you, perhaps?"

    Yujia looked back up. "Really?"

    "Of course." He pointed at her face with a grin on his own. "See, now you're happy! Is it really that easy to make you happy?"

    She didn't realize she was smiling. Yujia's smile dropped, and she mimicked Zhizhong's signature scowl. "Is that better? Would you prefer to see me like this?"

    It took a few seconds for the scowl to register in Zhizhong's eyes. But the moment he recognized that she was imitating him, the smile on his face grew even wider.

    "Seriously?" he managed to say between a laugh.

    Yujia couldn't hold this scowl for long either, and she let out a small giggle.

    Soon enough, though, Zhizhong straightened himself and crossed his arms. "Back to what I was saying before all of this. We should play a game."

    "Why a game? Did you really summon me over for just a game?"

    "Are you busy?" He raised his brows.

    Yujia thought about the art assignment her master gave her. Yesterday, she drew more than necessary. It would enough to account for taking a brief break today, right? Even if she wasn't going to do something productive during that break, she didn't feel motivated now to keep working on her art now that she had an option for procrastination.

    Procrastination truly remained as one of the most tempting things in life.

    So Yujia just shrugged, threw her responsibilities to the side, and said, "Not too much."

    "Then, let's play a game," Zhizhong replied with a clap. "Last time, you only won that Tic-Tac-Toe game because you knew how to do it, and I was a beginner! It wasn't fair. So this time, let's play a game that you haven't played before either."

    Him mentioning Tic-Tac-Toe made Yujia think of when she painted Zhizhong's face to look like a cat. The thought brought a smile to her face.

    "What game are we playing?"

    He seemed to already have an answer in mind. "A race on horseback!"

    Yujia's smile stayed on her face, but her eyebrows furrowed. She pointed out, "I have never even touched a horse in my life. How do you expect me to be able to race with you?"

    "Exactly. That's the point."

    "Aren't you rigging it so I'm destined to lose?"

    He stepped back, holding his hands up. "And you're telling me you didn't make that bet with me the other day knowing that you would win?"

    Yujia pursed her lips at that. Zhizhong had a point. The only reason she dared to bet with Bo Zhizhong was because she knew the strategies to Tic-Tac-Toe better than him. She was very assured that there was a greater chance of her winning than losing.

    "You can't back out of it," Zhizhong continued, his head inclined to the side, "Come on. I have to win one time to balance things out. And I have everything already prepared. I'll teach you carefully. Even if you lose, it'll be a fun experience. You can't say no."

    She looked at him plead, then thought about it for a few tense moments.

    She never rode a horse before. Before transmigrating, she hadn't even seen a horse in person. And a few that she had seen when she was just strolling down the streets of the capital were much more enormous than she expected. What if the horse that she would attempt to ride just kicked her the moment it saw her? Wouldn't that be equivalent to instant death, or at least numerous broken bones? Or if the horse trampled her over...

    These thoughts, though filled with fear, seemed a bit irrational to Yujia. She knew that the horses Zhizhong used were probably well trained. He wouldn't give her a dangerous horse to learn how to ride for the first time. But even so- there was always the possibility of those events that she just thought of occuring.

    The body she owned was not exactly the most physically fit either.

    But seeing how Zhizhong looked at her, full of anticipation, she sighed. There was no need to be pessimistic about things. It could even be a fun experience like he said, for all she knew. And wasn't that what she was living this life for? To go through the experiences she never had a chance to go through in the past?

    Besides, he already had everything set up. If she rejected, it would be ruining his effort of planning this challenge, or "game", as Zhizhong had called it.

    With this bit of positivity and her lack of desire to let Zhizhong down, Yujia finally relented. "Alright. Let's go do that."

    ...

    Zhizhong told her that the horses he prepared were still in the capital. He claimed that he rented two horses to be waiting by the forest, so that they could race in the road that went through the forest and out of the capital.

    Yujia recalled this forest. It was the same one that she went through during her first few days of transmigration to gather clay for her pencil-making. She also met Zhizhong for the second time in this forest. He seemed to know it well, because following his lead, the two of them soon came upon the horses that Zhizhong wanted to race on.

    There were two horses. One was larger than the other, with a pure black coat. It stood taller by quite a bit compared to the smaller horse by its side. Yet the other horse, though smaller than the black one, wasn't too small either. The closer Yujia stood to it, the larger it felt. The coat of that horse was a vibrant chestnut hue, and there was a streak of white down the center of its head.

    The moment Yujia laid her eyes on the chestnut horse and their gazes connected, a wave of unease rose up within her. While the black horse was actually quite still, only blinking to show that it was not a statue, the chestnut horse was more restless. Though tethered to the side of a tree, its hooves moved back and forth impatiently. Just based on how skittish the smaller chestnut horse was, Yujia immediately wished that she would be riding the larger horse instead.

    Zhizhong grinned brightly this entire time. During the walk to the forest, he attempted to assure her that she would enjoy herself. Horse-riding was apparently one of his favorite activities, which Yujia soon learnt.

    Now with the two horses right in front of them, while Yujia kept her distance cautiously, Zhizhong stepped up to the black horse, explaining to her, "This one is my favorite stallion. He's a rare breed, and you won't find many that are as strong, fast, agile, or otherwise as skilled as him. You should've seen him when I first got him- he had a lot of spirit, and a groom who took care of him had his hands bitten and bruised the first time he cared for him. A few nails came off too. But it's all okay now. They trained it out of him, so now he's really a very calm horse."

    "Ah." Yujia looked at the black horse, her palms beginning to sweat. "Well, I think I... appreciate the existence of all my fingernails intact."

    Zhizhong laughed, his hand reaching up to scratch the stallion's neck. "I promise you, he's a good horse. But I don't know how he is with strangers, so that's why I brought you this other horse instead. This mare is my sister's personal favorite because she's just so gentle. Her name is

    Xiao Ke Ai

    - Little Cutie."

    At the sound of her name, the chestnut mare immediately reared up and squealed, almost breaking the strap that kept her tethered to the tree. It towered up in the air for a few moments before going back down to kicking its legs against the floor. The horse snorted, clearly disliking being tied to a tree.

    Yujia stared at all of this with wide, wide eyes. Even Yushang backed away a few steps from the chestnut mare.

    Gentle? This horse was gentle?

    If this horse was considered gentle, then lions were only cuddly housecats!

    Hesitantly, Zhizhong took a step back forward. "Now- Little Cutie- she may just be a bit nervous meeting new people. But she's not usually like this. I promise. She's the mildest horse ever."

    Yujia looked at him with absolute disbelief, then back at the horse. She tried to take a step closer to the mare as well, but "Little Cutie" only kicked her foreleg out, which absolutely terrified Yujia to the point where she stumbled back in shock.

    She wanted to put as much distance with this horse as she could.

    Pointing at that horse, then back at Zhizhong, then back at the horse, her hand trembled. "I don't know anything about horses, but one thing is for sure- I am not riding that horse today."

    "Aw, come on." Zhizhong threw his palms up. "For real, I've been around her a lot. If I didn't think that her demeanor suited you, then I wouldn't have brought her to teach you horseback today."

    "Do you want me to

    die

    ?"

    "That's too dramatic. She might be scary right now to you, but once you get to ride her, you'll realize that she's the sweetest thing in the world." He went back to his black stallion, swinging up so that he was on top of the saddle. "If you are to be scared of someone, my stallion should be what you're terrified of. He's not good with strangers."

    Yujia looked at the calm black horse, who still barely moved, then back at "Little Cutie". At that moment, when she looked at the mare, she swore that "Little Cutie" gave her a murderous glare back.

    Zhizhong continued to persuade as he swung off his horse, "Come on, take a step closer! She won't kill you. She won't even bite."

    He went up to the chestnut mare and rubbed her side. Yujia expected Zhizhong to immediately be kicked, but "Little Cutie" was surprisingly alright with it, neighing gently.

    Maybe... Zhizhong was right?

    She found a little bit of bravery and went back up again. Zhizhong nodded supportively, saying, "Here, give her a good pat on the side."

    The moment Yujia reached out, she was greeted with a snapping mouth.

    That sight- the size and speed of the snapping teeth- made Yujia freeze. The horse teeth missed her fingers by just a bare centimeter.

    At that, Yujia was done. She really was done.

    She backed away, shaking her head, both her hands up in front of her.

    "I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this," she repeated, backing up all the way until she ran into a tree. And then, she slumped down onto the ground, still in a daze, her hands cupping the sides of her face. Her vision was spinning.

    The fear she thought was irrational before she met this "Little Cutie" was not irrational at all. Horses were terrifying. Absolutely. Terrifying.

    This was the day that Yujia discovered that amongst all her other fears in life- drowning, the past, and spiders- horses were one of them.
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