The group fell into a collective silence as the severity of the situation was beyond anything that Qin Yining or Lu Heng could have anticipated.
The only one who seemed perfectly at ease was Pang Xiao, who seemed quite nonchalant that Li Qitian had declared him a traitor and announced it to the entire nation.
“Alright, alright, there’s no need to worry about this, everyone. There’ll be a solution to the problem one way or another.”
Uncle Alham greatly admired someone as manly as Pang Xiao. Since he was the husband of Qin Yining—to whom the Minuo tribe owed a great deal—the old veteran was especially worried for the newest member of their group.
“If there isn’t, why not stay here? Your emperor won’t be able to find you here. There’s enough in the oasis for everyone to be able to provide for themselves,” Uncle Alham said this all in the Tatar language. Beside him, Harbhara and Caganbhara bobbed their heads rapidly in full agreement.
“What good would it do for you to go back, anyway?” they urged. “Your emperor is probably even jealous of you for being better than him! Just like how she-demon Anari envied our aav and eej, she ended up plotting their deaths because of it.
“We used to be a big tribe, but our numbers fell to a few thousand because of her persecution. When we fled into the desert, all of our women, children, and elderly had to be left behind outside.”
The reminder saddened a number of the Minuo as well. Thoughts of family members who’d met gruesome deaths, as well as wives and daughters who’d been left outside the desert, floated to the forefront of their minds.
They still wished to go back for their families, but the no man’s area of the desert remained the biggest obstacle barring reunion. They didn’t feel that they possessed the requisite abilities to cross the desert again, find their people, and successfully bring everyone to this oasis, all the while evading pursuit from Utkin Khan.
Perhaps there truly was no chance that they would ever see their separated kin again. Morale dropped, even Pang Xiao couldn’t help heaving a sigh.
“Just as you cannot part with your people,” he responded in the Tatar language, “My wife and I have our parents and relatives in the capital. If we do not return, they will pay the price with their lives. Can we allow others to charge in front of us and sacrifice themselves, so that we can live in comfort here? Other matters aside, we would simply die from a guilty conscience.”
Hearing this, Uncle Alham and the others nodded in understanding.
“When you put it that way, we understand. Can you still find your way back home once you leave the desert?” In truth, Uncle Alham asked this because he was doubtful. The Minuo’s fates had been up to the heavens the second they entered the desert. Truth be told, they’d actually wandered around aimlessly until they happened upon the oasis.
Pang Xiao, Cao Yuqing and the others, however, had rushed here just in the nick of time; it was as if they’d been following a predetermined route.
Cao Yuqing chuckled and came forward to explain. “With regards to this, we have Mister Liao of the Azure Justice to thank.”
She described how Mister Liao had arrived with Lu Heng’s subordinates and planted a tracking bug on the young master, how they’d realized Lu Heng’s kidnapping, determined where he’d gone, and subsequently rescued him.
“Because the tracking bug in Second Master Lu has yet to die and its range is extremely wide, I kept this in mind when Yining decided to follow you into the desert. After certain discussions with Mister Sir Liao and the other Azure Justice comrades, we left the group together.
“But it was by pure happenstance that we ran into His Highness, and His Highness was only able to find his way here because of Mister Liao’s tracking bug. Whether you’d found further shelter or not, we’d all decided to follow the tracking bug and search for you in the depths of the desert.”
Hearing this, Lu Heng’s eyes went round with astonishment. “I have something like that in my body?”
“Yes.” Liao Zhibing smiled. “However, Second Master Lu has no need for concern. This bug’s life expectancy is three years at most. It will disappear on its own, and will not affect your health in any way.”
Lu Heng nodded in understanding. “Who knows what would’ve become of me when I was taken if not for this bug, so I suppose I should thank it for saving my life.”
Cao Yuqing nodded despite herself. Lu Heng’s character was noble indeed, but Pang Xiao wasn’t bad himself either. Thinking this, she looked at Qin Yining with a smile. “So it seems, Yining, that His Highness cares very much for you.”
After all, not many would willingly put themselves in danger like this—despite knowing there was no going back once they entered the desert, he’d still gone after her with no hesitation whatsoever, as if it were only the most natural thing in the world.
Qin Yining flushed at the sudden mention of her name, a sweet and bashful sensation fluttering in her heart. Rather than look at the expression on her husband’s face, she elected to reply to Cao Yuqing forthrightly, “Thus, I am grateful to Auntie Cao for being willing to take the risk and enter the desert to find me. The same goes for our Elite Tiger comrades as well.”
She stood and faced Huzi and the troop of more than fifty Elite Tigers. “For following His Highness through thick and thin, you are all men of indomitable spirit in my heart. I offer my deepest thanks to you all!”
Everyone present had seen how Qin Yining stayed calm in the face of the Xiyue threats and executed their plan flawlessly. Thus, such praise from her lifted their hearts even higher than it might have originally.
“Your Highness exaggerates our accomplishments,” Huzi replied cheerfully. “Our lives belong to His Highness. We’d go through hell and high water so long as His Highness gives the word, so Your Highness has no need for formalities with us.”
All of the Elite Tigers nodded as well. “It is our honor to have been selected by His Highness!”
Pang Xiao turned around and threw his head back in laughter with his men. What greater bliss could there be to have such passionate brothers-in-arms? Their enthusiasm was so infectious that Uncle Alham, Harbhara, and Caganbhara also felt their blood boil with excitement.
Uncle Alham slapped his thigh. “When Second Master Lu and Her Highness killed Anari for us, we took them to be our chiefs,” he declared in the Tatar language. “Since Her Highness is going back to Great Zhou with His Highness, of course we are willing to escort Her Highness and lend her our strength!”
Uncle Alham turned his head and repeated his words to the two brothers, who solemnly nodded to indicate they were going to accompany the Great Zhou group.
Pang Xiao translated their words to Qin Yining.
Qin Yining, however, smiled in mollification. “Uncle Alham, I understand your good intentions and am extremely grateful for your kindness. However, His Highness and I will be facing extremely harsh trials on our way back to Great Zhou. I cannot allow the tribe to take such a risk with me.”
“No Minuo has any fear of death!” Uncle Alham pressed anxiously. “Each and every one of our warriors are capable of putting their lives on the line for our friends and people!”
“I know, I know that well,” Qin Yining responded soothingly. “Having lived together, I have become close friends and family with the Minuo. The solidarity and bravery of the tribespeople is something I seldom have the chance to see, and that is an indisputable truth.
“However, we went through so much struggle and hardship just to get here. Here, there is no tyranny of Tatar, nor is there anyone who would persecute our tribe. There is enough in the oasis for the tribe to live and thrive. No longer will you have to live as slaves, the provisions and seeds we brought are sufficient for everyone to survive on.
“The Minuo have endured so many struggles, and for what? We all put our lives on the line so that we may someday live freely and with dignity, didn’t we?
“We’ve achieved our goal now. Staying here and prospering is the best choice for the tribe. Under no circumstances will I allow the people to risk dire peril by traveling to Great Zhou with me and His Highness.”
Pang Xiao nodded as well. “I agree with my beloved. Everyone must see the bigger picture here. The tribe staying here to live out your days is the best option.”
“But!” Uncle Alham found his heart stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Truth be told, his first choice was also to stay here. Thus, he’d tried to convince Qin Yining and Pang Xiao against returning to Great Zhou. Then, he thought of how much the princess consort had done for the tribe. He couldn’t shrink into himself and cower from death during her time of need, which is why he proposed for everyone to escort her to Great Zhou.
Harbhara and Caganbhara were on the same page as Uncle Alham. Though they yearned for the freedom this land granted them, they too would lead the tribe to accompany Qin Yining and the others to Great Zhou without a second thought, so long as she gave the word.
“Uncle, listen to me,” said Qin Yining. “Though you three are in charge of the tribe, their lives should not be decided by us. We are the minority. If there is a way to ensure everyone’s survival, why let everyone endanger themselves thusly? Furthermore, it isn't as if I will never return here if you stay. Perhaps one day when His Highness and I can’t survive in the capital anymore, this place will become our final retreat.”
“That’s very right,” Pang Xiao agreed. “I also don’t agree with the idea of risking innocents by taking them with us. I imagine the majority of the tribe wants to live in peace more. Henceforth, the heavy responsibilities of the development and prosperity of the Minuo rest on your shoulders. The people have endured so much hardship to see the arrival of this day, which means even the heavens don’t wish for the tribe to disappear from this world. Therefore, I definitely can’t lead these friends with me into the maw of danger.”
Seeing Pang Xiao and Qin Yining’s great determination, Lu Heng sighed, “Live here in peace here, everyone. Perhaps one day when we cannot stand our lives outside, this oasis will become our last retreat.”
“Sir Lu is also leaving?” Uncle Alham exclaimed in astonishment.
Pang Xiao and Qin Yining both looked at Lu Heng.
Lu Heng flashed a wry smile. “I, too, have unfinished business outside.”
Everyone present fell silent, hearts heavy with melancholy manifesting in their tight expressions.
Qin Yining sighed, then turned to Liao Zhibing. “Mister Liao, would it be possible to teach the tracking bug technique to the tribe? When we were fleeing for our lives, we had split up into two groups. I want to use the tracking bug to help everyone find the others.
“What’s more, although this is an oasis, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be forever confined here as if it’s a dungeon. Over the past century, the Xiyue people have tried and tried, but failed to leave the desert. I don’t wish for the Minuo tribe to suffer the same fate, they should have the right to choose for themselves.”
This is a longer chapter than usual because it was too short to split. Please keep that in mind when reading further!