The Witch Nichang– Chapter 84
When the night fell upon the desert, the sandstorm finally abated.
The air grew still, and the moon looked cleansed, pieces of shining stones adorned around it. The sand haze was nowhere to be seen.
It was exactly because of that the moonlight tonight was exceptionally bright, cascading from the sky, casting long shadows over us, playing out every movement of ours on the ground, which made me feel somewhat self-conscious when I was changing behind the camel.
I was probably the only one who was bothered by it. A rustling sound came from behind me. Lian’er was also changing. Listening to her moving around unhesitatingly, I knew that she probably didn’t care about the shadows.
She changed because she had been in the sand; I changed because… well, let’s just say all my clothes had been put to good use.
We returned to the group when the sandstorm was almost cleared. Lian’er had driven away the group that came to look for us and escorted me back alone. At that time, she was covered in sand, and I had nothing on but her robe. We were both a mess. She didn’t try to be subtle. As soon as we got back, she shooed the group of men away from the camel and pulled me behind the camel.
Although the sandstorm had died down a lot, I was worried she had gone overboard. Strangely, the others obeyed without much protest. Even the hot-tempered Old Tie didn’t say much and went along with it, smiling. He only seemed a little abashed when he glanced in my direction.
Perhaps… he had caught a glimpse of me. With a touch of unease, I scratched my face. Though it was embarrassing, it didn’t bother me much. After all, I had my back turned to them, and he most likely just saw my back. I could think of it as having a sunbath on a beach at a seaside resort.
I comforted myself with these thoughts as I changed, shivering and half-kneeling on the ground. Removing the sand from my body was quite a hassle. I thought I had shaken off most of it, but when the soft silk cloth touched my skin, I immediately felt a gritty sensation on my back. I had to take it off again, reaching behind to brush my back.
Just then, I felt a warm touch on my back, and I flinched at the unexpected contact. A voice behind me said, “Don’t move.” So, I stayed still.
It felt like a palm, soft, smooth, and dry, brushing back and forth on my back like a warm breeze, and then, it was gone. A voice said beside me, “Done.” With that word, a figure brushed past me and walked around the camel, going off without a backward glance.
Ever since we escaped the quicksand, Lian’er had been in a foul mood. I pulled on my clothes and went after her. She didn’t go far, sitting against the other side of the resting camel, her elbow propping on the luggage next to her and her head resting on her hand, staring at the sky. There was no expression on her face, but there was a sense of… melancholy.
“What’s wrong?” I moved closer and sat down next to her, cautiously breaking the silence. I received an ambiguous glance in response, and after throwing me that look, Lian’er pursed her lips, let out a nearly inaudible grunt, and gazed lazily back at the night sky without saying anything.
I was like talking to thin air. Forcing a smile, I looked down and scooped up a handful of sand, watching as the sand slipped through my fingers. She had truly grown up. It was becoming harder and harder to know and guess what she was thinking. Although this realization had crossed my mind before, this time, I felt it in my heart.
If it weren’t for the inconvenient circumstances at that time, she might have actually acted on what she said. Curling up in her arms, I could feel that chilling intent flowing through her. I wasn’t sure if she would have attacked Old Tie, but those two guides would never have gotten out of it.
Fortunately, Old Tie was quick on his feet. Sensing trouble, he pulled everyone back and walked away, and I used needing help with blocking me as an excuse to hold her back. This way, we managed to put her off. Then, Lian’er had been in a bad mood since, and I wasn’t sure what put her in that mood.
If I had to guess, the most possible reason seemed to be that they had seen my… erm… bare back when they came looking for us. Lian’er probably knew that better than me. She was facing in their direction at that time, and her eyesight was the best of us.
But if I thought about it, it didn’t seem to make sense. Lian Nichang was no ordinary woman. Because of her unique childhood and our Master’s teachings, she had never cared about showing some skin, let alone it was another person’s. Even if she did mind, she would take her revenge. If she couldn’t do that, she wouldn’t hold a grudge for long.
Could it be because of my reckless act of chasing after the water earlier? But that didn’t seem right either… Or maybe because I failed to retrieve the water? But that shouldn’t be something she’d sulk on…
As I turned everything that happened in the past half-day over and over in my mind, I still couldn’t figure out what could be bothering this usually straightforward girl for so long. Could this be what they mean by “can’t see the forest for the trees?”
I sat by her side, second-guessing everything. Something just didn’t add up. In the end, I could even taste my own frustration.
While we sat together in silence, not far off, there came the sound of commotion. There was a fire. Old Tie and the two guides had been sitting by the fire talking, probably discussing the way to deal with this turn of events, but for some reason, the discussion had grown heated, their voices getting louder, then it escalated into what sounded like an argument.
The noise caught my attention, reminding me that I shouldn’t be only thinking about myself and should care about the situation we were in. I turned to look at Lian’er and saw that she was looking at me too. We got up almost at the same time and walked to them, one after another.
As she approached with confidence, the two guides who were the loudest both seemed to shrink back, their voices noticeably softer. It seemed that her menacing tough talk had left a mark on them, and Lian’er shot a glare at them, apparently still holding a grudge.
Afraid that it became too tense, I quickly stepped forward, inserting myself between them. I looked at Tie Feilong with an amiable smile and said, “Sir, what’s going on? You guys are so loud that I could hear your voices over there. Is there something you can’t agree on?”
Old Tie must have known that I was trying to defuse the situation. He grinned and promptly took over the conversation, changing the topic, and said as he stroked his beard, “Indeed, we have different opinions on the matter of water. Three brains can’t even come up with a good idea. So, as you can see, we started arguing.”
I had known that they would be worried about the water situation since it was the top priority at the moment. I didn’t join in the conversation earlier partly because of Lian’er and partly because I felt guilty. After all, I didn’t manage to retrieve the water and nearly did myself in instead. The little fresh water left in our pouches was all we had now. In the vast desert, it was an emergency.
Naturally, the two guides were panicking about this situation. After discussing it together, they each proposed a solution. The older one suggested we doubled back to Daze Lake with the little water we had left. Doing so would undoubtedly make the three-day return journey excruciatingly difficult, having to endure the thirst, possibly even getting heatstroke, but it offered a higher chance of survival and was safer.
The younger guide, however, had a different idea. He claimed that heading northeast for approximately a day would lead us to a small freshwater lake. The lake’s water was crisp and refreshing. With plants surrounding the lake, it was easy to spot in the vast desert, but it was slightly off the main route, so not a lot of people knew about it. If we made the detour and filled our pouches, our crisis would be averted, and also, spared ourselves the trouble of doubling back.
“I guarantee, my friend!” The young man with facial features of a mixed-race emphasized while Old Tie was explaining, “My buddies and I dropped by there a little over a year ago. The deepest part of the lake then was over our heads. Even with the unpredictable weather in the desert, it must still be there. Why should we go through the trouble of going back again, letting all we had been through go to waste.”
When he said that, the old guide seemed furious. Exasperated, he grabbed him and started sputtering at him in the local dialect. The younger guide retorted without backing down. Even though I didn’t understand what they were saying, I knew what they were arguing about. Old Tie rubbed his hands helplessly, and eventually, shrugged with open palms, and said to me, resigned, “See, one wants to go back, the other wants to continue, and both of them make sense. I’m in a tough spot.”
Once I understood the whole situation, I began to feel conflicted as well. If we went with the old guide, we would most likely survive, but it would be extremely tough. The risks were high too, and all the effort we put in the past few days would be in vain. If we listened to the young man, venturing off the main route for a day, it would be great if we made it, but the risk of things going wrong, like not being able to find the lake or discover that the lake had dried up, was what worried me the most.
After thinking it over, Old Tie and I fell silent, and the two guides stood their ground, the conversation coming into a standstill. Right then, a firm voice came from behind us.
“What’s so difficult about this?”
Wheeling around in surprise, the one speaking was the girl I shielded behind me. Lian’er stepped forward with her hands behind her back. Seeing that we were all looking at her, she flashed a radiant smile as if she had forgotten her foul mood earlier and said with an arch brow, “Why are you all fussing over such a simple matter? Isn’t it just a matter of not being sure whether the lake was still there? It’s simple. If it takes a whole day to reach there on camelback, the round trip would take me about one night if I go alone at full speed. We can make the decision after I’ve checked it out. Easy peasy.”
The two guides looked bewildered at her words. They didn’t quite grasp what she meant, but Old Tie knew. His face brightened up, but after a bit of thought, frowned, and said, “No, no. Everywhere looks the same in the desert. You don’t know your way around. If you get lost, where can I find another daughter? No, no!”
“Then you don’t know me, father.” Lian’er didn’t get offended at his words but smiled and said, “I grew up on the peak of Mount Hua. Who knows how many times I’ve navigated through the dense forest. When did I ever get lost? Just think about today. Who found her faster than I did? Father, you shouldn’t underestimate me.”
The old man wasn’t giving in either. He waved his hand and said, “Hey, who would underestimate you, the Jade Rakshasa. It’s just that the forest is the forest, and the desert is the desert. They aren’t the same. So what if you found her? Can one mile and ten miles be the same?”
This time, the guides weren’t arguing, it was this father and daughter who started to argue, half-serious, half jokingly. Both refused to back down. I was used to seeing this, so I didn’t pay them much mind. While they were at it, I went to the guides and asked about the details, especially from the young man. I made a mental note of the information I got and made sure I had it all correct before returning to the bickering pair who seemed to be enjoying themselves and separated them.
“Alright, alright, sir.” I stepped between them and said to Old Tie first, “Actually, there’s some truth to what Lian’er is saying. Instead of sitting and waiting, being indecisive, it might be better to make the most of this night and tackle the problem head-on.”
When she saw me taking her side, she suddenly perked up, as if she had forgotten what happened before. Grinning, she took my hand. Old Tie was unconvinced. He said as his eyes widened, “Zhu’er, are you seriously letting her go? You’ve always been the most protective of her, like she’s your baby. How come you’re not worried now? This is a desert. You won’t get her back if you lose her!”
Old Tie’s words, seemingly slipped out of him, made my ears warm. Thanks to the dark sky, probably no one had seen them flushed.
After getting a hold of myself and the heat had come down, I squeezed Lian’er’s hand and cleared my throat before saying seriously, “I won’t lose her. If she goes, I’ll go with her. We’ll get lost together if we are going to get lost.”