Cao Yuqing waved her hand. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony.”
In fact, she rather sympathized with Lu Heng. Watching him care for who he could never have, stalwartly bearing his loneliness, and even pretending he didn’t mind at all in front of Qin Yining and Pang Xiao reminded Cao Yuqing of well… herself. That’s why she’d agreed to escort Lu Heng back to the capital. In any case, now that Qin Yining and Pang Xiao were together, there was nothing further to worry about.
Compared to when Qin Yining and Lu Heng led the Minuo tribe to escape the Tatar soldiers, Pang Xiao’s Elite Tigers were old hats at this kind of undertaking. Returning to Great Zhou would be a walk in the park, as easy as eating or drinking.
Duties were cleanly divvied up. Scouts had their scouting duties, and guards had their guarding duties. As a result, they weren’t intercepted by Tatar soldiers a single time in their entire journey through Tatar territory back to Great Zhou.
The day before arriving at the first Great Zhou border station, Cao Yuqing pulled Lu Heng aside. “Be ready, we’re splitting up today to find another way to slip into Great Zhou.”
Hearing that, Lu Heng’s heart pounded; he truly didn’t want to part from Qin Yining. After being together for so long, just staying by her side and watching over her was enough for him. How could it be that they were down to no other choice but to leave first? The unbearable anguish of separation was a knife sliding through his flesh.
When Cao Yuqing saw Lu Heng’s expression, she couldn’t help a sigh.
“Second Master Lu, you must learn to let it go. Don’t seek out suffering for yourself and end up holding yourself back in other ways.” She turned and left the tent without saying anything more.
Standing outside and taking in a deep breath of cool air, Cao Yuqing finally felt a little better. Although her circumstances were the same as Lu Heng, she’d already found happiness in a life in which she’d offered all that she had and asked for nothing in return. Qin Yining was a good child and had sincerely accepted her. Simply having Qin Huaiyuan’s friendship and trust, and gaining a niece as obedient and filial as Qin Yining was already the best outcome. This was much better than her forcing the issue and losing everything.
Lu Heng finished tidying up his simple belongings very quickly. He didn’t reveal any inappropriate emotion when he stood in front of Qin Yining and Pang Xiao, bidding his farewells with a smile. “Goodbye for now, until we meet again in the capital.”
Pang Xiao also raised his hands in a cupped fist salute. “I believe that Brother Lu will be able to resolve all of your difficulties. We await your good news.”
“I as well. Take care of yourself and farewell.”
“Until we meet again.”
Lu Heng glanced at Qin Yining once again. She wore a rather large black mink overcoat, and matched it with a hat of similar material. It was clear from a quick glance that it was Pang Xiao’s.
The lush, black fur wrapped snugly around her, burying half of her small face in the collar. Her face had fleshed out a little and she looked much healthier. Their eyes met, a gentle smile in her limpid eyes.
“You must be careful.”
“I will. Farewell.” Lu Heng firmly pushed down the reluctance in his heart. Qin Yining was with Pang Xiao, so she would definitely be safe. There was nothing more for him to worry about.
After making up his mind, Lu Heng turned and leapt onto his horse, leaving with Cao Yuqing and Liao Zhibing.
Pang Xiao watched Lu Heng leave, his lips pursed for a moment before returning to a carefree grin. He took Qin Yining’s small hands hidden under the overcoat and wrapped them in his large palms, huffing on them gently to warm her up.
“Are you cold? Let’s go back to the tent and rest a bit.”
Qin Yining nodded with a smile, carefully picking up the hem of the overcoat so that it wouldn’t drag in the snow and pick up mud. With her other hand firmly in Pang Xiao’s warm, dry grip, she followed after him wherever he went.
“When do we enter the border station?”
Pang Xiao smiled. “We need to raise some sort of fuss that’ll attract everyone’s attention in order to facilitate Brother Lu’s group. After lunch, I will order men to bring a message to the pass saying I’ve returned with my princess consort, and that they should open the gates and kneel on both sides in welcome.”
Qin Yining giggled at that. “His Majesty’s most certainly already arranged his men in the capital. The whole world knows you’ve committed treason and run off to Tatar to find me. There’s bound to be people monitoring you, waiting to arrest you as soon as you return, and you want them to kneel in welcome? Don’t tell me you mean kneeling in fear?”
Pang Xiao was indifferent. “Whether it’s us beating them into kneeling, or them kneeling in fear, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re not the ones kneeling.”
He patted her head gently. As his hat was a bit too big for her head, his motions scattered her upswept bun and sent the hat falling over her eyes. It made for a truly adorable scene.
Qin Yining glared at him, using her hand to steady the hat. “What are you doing?”
However Pang Xiao firmly kept the hat over her head, blocking Qin Yining’s line of sight as he stooped down and softly bit her lips before his nimble tongue darted in, winding and dancing with her own.
Without her sight, Qin Yining’s other senses were much sharper. She felt like she was about to erupt in flames. Breathing in his breath, her entire body was surrounded by his fragrance. Perhaps due to the lack of oxygen, even her knees went weak for a moment.
When she came back to herself, she discovered that Pang Xiao had placed her on the simple wooden platform in the tent. His body covering her’s, he lifted himself up with a hand and caressed her cheek. Fires blazed from his eyes as he stared at her, flames that couldn’t be stopped and leapt into an inferno, engulfing her as she, too, burned up.
Qin Yining naturally slept through lunch.