Many thoughts crossed Lu Heng's mind, yet they lasted for only the span of a breath. Qin Yining thought back to her dream and knew that she was recalling when Pang Xiao had disguised himself as Master Yao and rescued her at the Celestial Nunnery. Her longing for him draped over her like silk threads and wrapped her up in an inescapable bundle.
"It’s nothing, really. I merely had a nightmare." Qin Yining flashed a wry smile. "Thankfully they were dreams and nothing more. Fortunately, reality is nowhere as scary."
Lu Heng chuckled and dropped the subject, even if he envied Pang Xiao for having her heart.
"Are you feeling better? Have some water." The princess consort retrieved the water pouch and supported Lu Heng's head with one hand as she helped him drink.
Lu Heng only had a sip before he turned his head away. "I’m not thirsty and feel much better already. You should drink some."
"You’re ill, so you need to drink more water. Just a few more sips." Qin Yining fed him water again.
However, Lu Heng twisted his face away and refused. "I’m really not thirsty. You drink some."
"I’ve already drank enough today." Qin Yining pursed her lips as she dimpled; if she smiled too wide, her chapped lips would crack.
Lu Heng took in the sight of her hair filled with sand, wan complexion, and cracked lips. Heart aching, he urged, "Your lips have ripped apart. Isn’t there a saying that women are flowers who need to be nourished by water? I’m really not thirsty, so you have some."
Qin Yining helped Lu Heng sit upright and forced him to take a couple more sips before carefully resealing the water pouch. She hung it on his belt with great care in merry spirits.
"You must’ve also heard people say that women are made of water. Since I am already water, I naturally don’t need to drink that much."
Her lips were so dry that she daren't smile too wide, yet Lu Heng found her appearance most beautiful in this moment.
Now that he had wet his burning throat, he felt slightly better. "Get some more sleep," he suggested. "We still have a ways to go. You waste a lot of stamina walking on foot since you gave me your horse. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body won’t be able to take the stress. I know you aren’t much stronger than I am."
Qin Yining laughed at his words, then laid down on the sand. "You should sleep as well," she replied. "Rest well so you may recover. There are so many of us and we’re all looking after one another. Our situation is already a massive improvement from when we first arrived here. Rest assured, I will not leave you behind. We will be alright."
With the words "I will not leave you behind", she struck him in the softest part of his heart.
Under such trying circumstances, not even blood siblings could reliably depend on one another. And yet, Qin Yining made Lu Heng such a promise.
A bittersweet sensation flooded his heart as it filled with happiness and heartache. He grunted in response, then forced himself to close his eyes and sleep. If he prolonged the conversation, he feared he would let his hidden feelings rear from the depths of his heart, thus alarming her into distancing herself from him.
He fantasized he was lying in his ornate bed at home, and with Qin Yining so close to him, of course she was in bed with him. Bathed in the gentle amber candlelight, her brows and eyes curved as she smiled at him, her long hair spilling over her pillow.
As he imagined this, the corners of his lips couldn't help lifting upward. Even if it was but a daydream, there was happiness in keeping someone in your heart like this as well.
Not long after, Lu Heng felt a small, cold hand rest on his forehead to cool him down. His frustration and resignation dissolved in an instant.
To have had the fortune of meeting and befriending her in this lifetime, to have had her company day in and day out as they weathered good times and hardships together, to even have had her cold hand to help him lower his fever, propriety be damned—he was satisfied with all he had.
When the sun peeked over the horizon, the group set off once again.
Though their journey through the desert was grueling, they had tribesmen who excelled at finding water in the desert. They even stumbled across an oasis at times, allowing them to drink to their hearts' content, refill their water pouches, and the luxury of a quick bath.
They kept track of the days and often had to hide from the pursuing soldiers. More than half a month into their journey, they noticed the hints of the end of the endless expanse of yellow sand.
Withered, yellow grass and fallen snow. They’d finally made it out of the desert!
"We did it! We did it!" The tribe embraced one another and cheered. Some were so moved that they wept, tears leaving two tracks on their dirty faces.
Qin Yining smiled as well, then looked at the emaciated Lu Heng, sprawled unconscious atop his horse. Though she worried still, she could finally breathe a little more easily. So long as they were out of the desert, there was hope for Lu Heng’s survival.
"Uncle Alham, take note of our surroundings and tell the tribe not to be so happy that they ignore what’s happening around us. We haven’t encountered many soldiers on our way here, so I think it’s very likely the khan has his men on the outskirts of the desert, waiting for us to run across them."Previous Chapter Next Chapter