Tenzin looked up from her book to see Ben tearing at his hair, his elbows planted on either side of what she knew was his Mandarin textbook.
“I’m never going to get this,” he said.
“Yes, you will.”
“No, I’m not. It’s the tones. I just can’t seem to get the tones right, and they’re going to kick me out of my next class if I can’t get them right.”
She knew that wasn’t good. Chinese was his minor field of study. Political science was his major at the university, and Chinese was his minor. At least she thought that was how it worked.
“You need to practice more.” She spoke to him in Mandarin. “From now on, I’ll only speak to you in Chinese. That will help.”
“Please don’t,” he said in English.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she answered, smiling. “I do not understand English when you are speaking it.”
“You are full of shit,” he said in Mandarin. Or at least, that’s what he was trying to say. Ben was right. He really needed practice.
Just then, an image on the television caught her eye.
“Ben, turn that up.”
He glanced up, confused. “What?”
“The television! What is this program? Turn the volume up.”
She stared as the sound slowly grew on the screen in front of her. Images of crumbled brick and construction equipment filled the screen. Men wearing hard hats and pouring concrete.
“Where is that?” Ben asked.
She whispered, “Kashgar.”
This was not good…
Familiar mud roofs and bright doorways filled with colorful dresses. The images on the screen flipped through her memories along with the fragrance of saffron, charred lamb, and dust.
She leaned forward, ignoring Ben and listening to the narrator.
“In the old town, ancient mud brick homes are making way for modern reconstruction, though the government is quick to reassure both citizens and visitors alike that the unique character of this historic city is central to the improvement plans for the special economic zone that is planned.”
Ben frowned at her as an image of collapsed walls flashed across the screen. “What? It looks like these places were about ready to fall in. Can you imagine how many people might get hurt? Kids might live in those houses.”
Tenzin stared at the familiar old streets, tapping her foot. How safe was it? She hadn’t moved that cache in several hundred years, but if they started tearing up enough old streets…
Plumbing lines. Foundations. Modern wiring went underground, didn’t it?
“Shit,” she muttered again.
If only Nima was still alive. She was always better at making these arrangements. She’d need Cheng’s help, but he owed her more than one favor. Nobody moved things by horse or wagon anymore. She’d need… what? A truck? A boat? Cheng had many boats. He could probably get her a truck, too. Then there was the new government to deal with. Human governments liked forms and fees. Tariffs and taxes. There would probably be checkpoints, but she could deal with those.
“Tenzin, what are you scowling about?”
She glanced at Ben. Back at the screen. A government spokesman was speaking to a reporter.
She would need a truck, a boat…
And a human.
What was the American phrase? A lightbulb went off?
Tenzin looked at Ben. Then she looked at his textbook, still laying open on the table in the den. A smile turned up the corner of her mouth.
She asked, “When does your school start?”
Ben was looking at that book again, chewing on his thumbnail. “Next semester starts…uh, middle of August.”
That was months away. Plenty of time. She stood and walked over to him, slapping his book closed.
“Hey! I was trying to—”
“Study, yes. Admirable. But you know what would be better?”
His eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Practicing Chinese with real Chinese people.”
“Aren’t you a real Chinese person?”
“Define Chinese. And person.”
He paused. “I see your point. Why are you—”
“I need to make a quick trip to Xinjiang.”
“It’s a province in China. You can come along.”
His eyebrows went up. “Really?”
“Really. Don’t you think that would be better than studying from books?”
He sat back, suspicion written clearly on his face. “I guess I could stand to practice my conversational—”
“Excellent! Just see to your visa and I’ll take care of the rest.”
She walked from the room, mentally composing a note for Caspar to send to Cheng’s secretary. She’d need to tread carefully. The last thing she wanted was to end up in the old pirate’s debt.
“Tenzin?” Ben called from down the hall. “What are we doing?”
“Going to China.”
“To practice your Chinese, of course!”
Ben muttered something she was pretty sure he had not learned in a textbook.