"Here, put this on."
Jun reached for the homespun vest. She wondered where Rikaw found it. It looked better than most of the things they normally owned. Nothing around here ever looked this new.
Jun glanced over at Rikaw waiting to see if he'd let her in on the secret or not. The somber Tebetan boy always kept to himself and seemed unlikely to change, even though he'd taken the two of them under his wing. He was currently studying her critically as she put the vest on.
The new vest was big on her, but that was good. Up until now, she'd been very concerned about the fact that lately she'd been ‘maturing'. They always knew it would happen sooner or later. Luckily, it happened later with her, but now the problem was here. Soon, none of their tricks would work anymore. Life would get much harder then. "How's this?"
The fourteen-year-old Tebetan studied her with his dark eyes. "It's better. Much better." Jun relaxed a little. This would help put things off a little while longer.
"She still looks just like always."
Jun smiled, glancing over toward her brother. He was looking at her as critically as Rikaw, his small face very serious. "Jinpei, I think that's exactly the point."
"The protector seems to be wearing a little thin, Jun." Rikaw pointed out.
Nodding, she dug up a small cracked bowl from the corner of the little alley. This was their place. It was where they came to plan, to dream, to train. No one else knew of it, not even the monks. As long as they showed up for their chores and meals, the monks didn't much care where they went. That was exactly how they liked it. Jun wasn't sure the monks would approve of the things Rikaw tried to teach them there.
The bowl was a little more than half empty. Jun made a mental note to go hunting for the components to replenish her supply.
Everyone at Ximang learned early how to make the yellowish salve. It helped protect the skin during Tebet's cold, arid winters. Though not used as often during the spring, still, to Jun it was a necessity. Though all here knew about her light skin, it was best not to advertise the fact to strangers. It protected her from Them. It was well known the Chunese had a strong taste for the exotic.
Methodically, she applied the salve to her skin.
"Neechan, you missed a spot."
"We'd better get started before it's time for chores," Rikaw said.
Jun and Jinpei were lining up at their usual place for their lesson when a bell rang loudly throughout the compound. It tolled four times. That could mean only one thing--They were back again.
Jun felt a quiver of fear run through her body.
"Come, we mustn't be late and attract attention." Rikaw ran and the other two followed.
They were early. A group of Them came already not ten days ago. Jun worried about this as they cut through the narrow twisted streets, a feeling of foreboding stealing over her.
As they were expected to do at such times, the three of them made their way back to the courtyard before their sleeping quarters. It was never any use to try not to come, even though it was one of the things they loathed the most to have to do. They always seemed to know how many of them there should be. They were never satisfied until every last one of them was rounded up for them to see.
The three of them lined up with the others, Rikaw cutting them a path to the center of the group. They lined up in six rows, just as expected, even as a couple of monks made sure they did it well. All knew what a visit from Them could mean. Jun held onto her brother's hand, trying not to feel the fear she saw reflected in so many of the others's faces.
Four bells rang again. They were now within Ximang. Jun heard the sound of a truck as it took the narrow way to their area. She felt herself tense.
Jun squeezed Jinpei's hand. "It'll be okay. Just do as Rikaw taught us." As she watched, she saw her brother's face go purposely slack, his eyes growing dull. His shoulders slowly hunckered forward making his small frame look slightly deformed. Nodding with approval, Jun began her own transformation.
With practiced ease, she thrust out her lower jaw to disfigure her round face, and adopted a half grin while curving her upper lip.
"Good," Rikaw said.
Jun glanced over at him. Their teacher slouched down beside them, his face sporting an eternally stupefied look.
"Remember not to talk to them, no matter what they ask."
Jun nodded. She knew her voice would be a dead giveaway. Changing her voice was one of the few tricks she'd never been able to master.
Around them, the other children did their best to look as unappetizing as possible.
A large covered truck noisily rumbled into the courtyard. Kal, one of the young monks, quickly moved forward to greet the strangers. Two got out of the truck's cab, while three others emerged from the back. Jun's dread grew as she realized these were not the usual type of strangers that came to see them. These men looked rougher than those others--they had a hardened look about them she didn't like. All five wore identical drab green uniforms. They had no indications of rank, but it was easy to tell who was in charge.
The leader was small, even by Tebetan standards, and he was Chunese like all the rest. His expression was grave, solid; the patch he wore over one eye only serving to intensify the steely stare.
"This is everyone?"
"Yes, Colonel, these are all the children," Kal said.
"Hmph." The soldier didn't look impressed. "Split them up by age group." His eye scoured the sea of small faces. "I'm only interested in the ones over thirteen. Send the rest of them away."
"As you wish, sir." Kal bowed to him.
The Colonel's wishes were quickly passed around and several of the monks started separating the children. Jun hung back with Jinpei at her side, only too aware Rikaw fell within the wanted category. Only he and two others were thirteen or above. His chances for being chosen had incredibly grown.
"Jun, go," he hissed out of the side of his mouth. "You're bringing attention to yourselves! I'll be all right." Rikaw's eyes never changed in their dull expression.
She had a harder time maintaining her own charade, undecided on what she should do. The decision was quickly taken from her.
"Come, you're not what they're looking for. Go on inside." Kal took Jun and Jinpei by the shoulder and led them into the sleeping quarters. She frowned as they got them all inside and then latched the door. The monks had never done such a thing before. The dread which had accompanied her to the yard grew. What did they know that they hadn't told them?
"Come on, Jinpei."
She pushed past some of the other children and climbed the ladder up to the second floor. She shoved one of the younger kids partially aside from the window so both she and Jinpei could look outside.
The short Chunese man walked up to the three remaining boys, who looked horribly exposed standing alone in the courtyard. He eyed all three thoroughly and then turned his back on them before spitting on the floor. "They're not much, but times are hard. I'll take all three."
Jun stiffened, sure she couldn't have heard right.
Two of the soldiers returned to the truck and came back carrying chains and manacles. One of the three boys collapsed and wailed his misery to the winds.
Jun backed away from the window, her breath caught in her throat.
"Neechan?" Jinpei's eyes were wide with fear.
"They - they can't!" She rushed for the ladder. They couldn't take him! Rikaw was their only hope. He'd been their only hope from the beginning. She leapt halfway down to make her way quicker to the ground floor. She rushed for the closed door. She used a stick to pry the latch from the inside and then pushed. The door opened almost and inch before it was hastily pushed closed from the outside.
"You must stay inside!"
Jun recognized Kal's muffled voice. They'd known, they'd known this was going to happen all along! The sounds of combat drifted in from outside. Jun knew Rikaw wouldn't let them take him easily, but he was outnumbered. She had to help.
"Let me out!" She got no response. "Let me out!" Jun beat on the door but that got her nowhere. She heard sobs somewhere behind her, but didn't dare look. There had to be something she could do for him. There had to be!
Desperate, she moved as far back away from the door as she could and then ran toward it. At the last moment, she turned on her side and rammed the door. It jarred open about a foot. She tried to squeeze through before they could close it on her. It caught her half way out.
Jun grunted in pain, but continued to struggle to squeeze out. She looked up and froze.
Three of the soldiers lay on the ground, most with their hands wrapped about their midriffs. The fourth was keeping Rikaw busy trading blows as the colonel came at him from behind. Rikaw never saw him. He dropped as the colonel rapped him on the head with the butt of his gun.
Jun's view was abruptly cut off as Kal moved into her field of vision. "Please, get back inside. You must! You do not want them to notice you." The monk's voice was rushed.
The pressure eased from the door and Jun, suddenly free, tried to run past. Kal grabbed her with the help of one of the other monks and they forced her back inside. "Be still. You cannot help him. His fate is in Buddha's hands now."
"No! No! I have to help him! Let me go." Jun struggled to get free of their arms.
"Do you wish to share his fate?" The monk's face was close to her own.
Tears sprang in Jun's eyes, for she knew that what Kal said was true. "It's not fair!"
Kal said nothing but only held her until she stopped struggling. As soon as she seemed calm enough, he let her go.
Jun raced up the ladder at her brother's panicked call. Kal and the other monk watched after her, still guarding the door.
Jinpei was at the window, his small face was full of tears. "They're taking him, Neechan."
She ran to his side. Below, the other two boys had already been chained and stowed inside the back of the transport truck. One of the soldiers was throwing a bucket of water on one of the soldiers that had yet to get up, while a third and fourth picked up an unconscious Rikaw by the arms and dragged him away.
"Oh, Rikaw..." Jun's own cheeks grew wet, leaving streaks in the yellow tinted salve.
Jun collapsed to her knees and took her brother in her arms. He sobbed in misery.
"It'll be all right, Jinpei. It'll be all right." Except she knew, of course, that wouldn't be the case at all.
"Everyone! I have news!"
Jun looked up from her work, her attention drawn by Mettil's excited shouting.
The sun was high in the sky, the temperature at the summer high of 65 degrees. It'd been two months since Rikaw was taken from them. Though she knew it highly unlikely, a part of her hoped Mettil's news would be of him.
All the kids hurried to gather around him.
"I overheard some of the monks talking. Someone is coming soon--A foreigner. A famous foreigner!"
A foreigner? Jun couldn't believe her ears. Foreigners didn't come here. It was unheard of. Only the Chunese and their allies ever came here.
Mettil's faced glowed. "And he's coming to adopt one of us!"
Everyone started talking at once. Who was this man? Adopt one of them? Impossible! Why would he come here? He was lying! No one was coming!
"It's true! He'll be here before the end of the summer. I tell you, I heard the monks talking about it. He even sent a letter to the Holy One! I swear it!" Mettil's expression dared anyone to contradict him.
Jun turned away. Could it be true? Could it be really true? And before the end of summer. Maybe... maybe...
"Neechan, isn't it great? He'll pick us for sure!" Jinpei said.
Jun looked at her brother's excited face, knowing he just spoke her hope out loud. "We, we don't know that."
"I'll pray to Buddha everyday, neechan. He's got to pick us. He's just gotta."
As the days passed, Mettil's information was confirmed by others as they too kept their ears to the ground to hear news. The whole monastery was in an uproar about the coming visit, everyone in better spirits than they were in months. The excitement was contagious and all looked forward to the day when the foreigner would arrive.
"He's coming! He's coming!"
The word spread like lightning through Ximang. T'lay's cart had been spotted on the mountain trails and he wasn't alone. The foreigner was here! Here to adopt one of them, not just drag them away to become cheap labor or chattel. Even now, no one could entirely believe it. Why would someone like that go through all the trouble of adopting one of them? It was unheard of.
All the children scrambled at the news, racing for the well. With eager hands they reached out for a bit of the water to quickly wash the grime and protective yellow salve from their hands and faces. They all knew from the monks that foreigners didn't understand why they wore it, so they washed it off to make themselves more presentable to foreign eyes. It was said it was foreigners gazing on the inhabitants of Tebet wearing the yellow salve and cured furs for the first time that sprang the old tale about them coming from the coupling of a monkey and a mountain ogress.
Jun pushed her chopped hair away from her face with her wet fingers. This once, it would be all right to expose her round features and light skin. This once, it would not endanger her at all. For this man, this visitor, wasn't one of the ones to avoid. This man would be the chance of a lifetime, the only one she might ever have to get out of here. And she meant to take it, for her and Jinpei.
"I'm all done," her brother said.
Jun glanced down at the familiar grubby features peering up at her, the sweet smile waiting for her there almost larger than the small face could contain. "I thought we'd agreed that we'd only speak in Japanese or English to one another now. You need the practice."
The boy's large brown eyes looked quickly away even as he dried his wet hands on his britches and got them dirty again. "Sorry, neechan."
"That's much better." Jun tousled her brother's unruly hair. "Come, let's go grab a place up front before the others beat us to it."
Jinpei eagerly took off to lead the way.
Dozens of bare feet slapped against the packed dirt road along the high wall. They wove between the tall squared buildings, some with sloped roofs and effigies of enraged elephants or ogres watching them as they ran below.
Jun and Jinpei lined up next to the compound's only cobbled street, which ended at the monastery's huge wooden gates. The gates were over twenty feet tall and were hinged to the angled wall surrounding Ximang. The children pushed and shoved for position but grew instantly quiet at the sound of a soft bell.
Down the cobbled way, from the center of the compound, came two lines of monks in their bright orange robes. Jun's heart sped in her breast as she noticed their freshly shaved heads and clean linen. The foreigner really must be someone important indeed! Never had she seen them go this far for any visitor before. Behind the monks, carried on a small litter, came the Lama himself, a shriveled old man any of them would be glad to give his life for. His gold badge of office gleamed brightly in the early afternoon sun.
Excitement and hope flared through her as Jun glanced at the crowded buildings and narrow pathways that had been her home for the past several years. She wasn't like the others. She wasn't born in this land. The newcomer had been born elsewhere like her. It was her hope this difference would for once work in her favor. She hoped this would be the edge that would get her chosen above all the rest.
In Tebet you were born to your position in society, or were sometimes placed there by circumstance. All the children here knew their place, their chores and duties. They all knew why they were here. The monastery had never been meant to be an orphanage, but fate made it so. Only the fact the monks consented to take the children had actually saved them from persecution by the reinvented government. Though she didn't entirely understand it all, Jun knew this was also why the Lama did nothing when an official or others with writs from the government came to take some of them away. It was why everyone always felt fear. As all had learned from experience, the price of defiance was high.
Four monks separated from the Lama's escort and took hold of the large bar that held the gates closed. Heaving with all their might, they pushed it sideways to release the doors. They slowly pulled them open.
All the children pushed forward trying to be the first to catch a glimpse of the stranger. Jun kept a tight grip on her brother knowing he'd be tempted to jump out onto the road. If they didn't stay on their side of the street, they'd already been warned their opportunity to be seen, and therefore selected, would be forfeit. As they were often told, all had their proper place and staying in it and following the rules would be the fastest way to reach a higher plane in one's next life.
The first thing Jun saw was T'lay's two yaks as they entered through the gate. The large oxlike creatures with their humped shoulders chewed at their bits; strolling in as if they were mighty kings and all before them their rightful subjects.
T'lay and his yaks were a common sight in Ximang. He was one of the few contacts the monastery had with the outside world. Once every seven days, T'lay would visit them, bringing provisions and news in exchange for the compound's crafts, cheese, and butter that he'd take back and sell in Ihasa. T'lay always smelled of cheap liquor and sweat and seemed happiest only when complaining about something or other. He was also as punctual as the sun.
Seated next to T'lay was the man they'd all been waiting to see.
The foreigner had a serious, almost chiseled looking face, but this was offset by his light brown hair and warm eyes. A pair of rimless glasses sat precariously on his nose, while a small mustache decorated his upper lip. He wore a thick, dark blue jacket, with corduroy slacks and hiking boots. Even in those clothes, however, it was easy to see there was nothing usual about this man. Perhaps the rumors about what he had come for would really prove to be true.
T'lay and the Holy One quickly traded courtesies even as the foreigner slowly climbed down from the cart. Jun strained to overhear their words as T'lay brought the stranger forward for an introduction.
"Great One, this is Kozaburo Nambu. He is a man of great power and influence. He is a world renowned scientist." After giving the words time to sink in to his impromptu audience, T'lay moved on. "Mr. Nambu, let me introduce you to the honorable Lama of Ximang. This is one of the few bastions of the Yellow Sect left in all Tebet."
Jun was a little surprised to discover T'lay knew mainland Chunese. The foreigner seemed to have no trouble understanding the tongue. Yet from his features, she was sure he wasn't Chunese.
In halting tones, the foreigner gave the Lama a proper greeting for his rank and even bowed to the proper depth. The Holy One blessed the newcomer, obviously pleased.
"Welcome to Ximang! We have awaited your coming most anxiously as you can see. We hope your stay with us will be a fruitful one." T'lay quickly translated the Lama's words.
"Please tell the Lama that I'm happy to be here and that I hope good fortune will shine on us all," Nambu said.
Jun frowned slightly. The foreigner's Chunese was flawless, but it still had a slur of an accent. Strangely enough, it seemed like a familiar one. Where had she heard it before?
"Would you like to see the children now or would you prefer to rest a while after your long journey?"
Eager eyes riveted themselves on the foreigner, all trying to will him to look at them now.
"I mean no disrespect, Holy One, but while I am sure all the children here would make any parent proud, I've actually only come for one particular boy. His name is Rikaw."
Rikaw? How had this man heard of him? The other children murmured to one another in barely restrained tones as the statement was translated for the Lama. Jinpei wiggled beneath Jun's hold on his shoulder.
"Ah, I am so sorry, but the boy is no longer here." The Lama's face crinkled with distress and sorrow. "He was taken but a short time ago by the military. He had become of age."
The foreigner frowned. Zipping down his jacket, he reached inside and removed a number of sheets of paper from his coat. "Wouldn't that have been a little premature? I thought the boy was only fourteen."
The monks and especially the Lama looked suddenly embarrassed by the question. T'lay quickly answered it for them. "There have been some skirmishes up in the north border of Chuna and the casualties have been high. It's was felt by the government that our country should bear most of the burden to replace the troops because of the trouble we caused in the past. Some of our younger men have been forced to grow very fast."
The foreigner's frown deepened. "I see."
Jun only partially paid attention to what was said. The ache she thought she'd buried had come back in full force at the mention of Rikaw's name.
Her friend was one of the two survivors of one of the many massacred villages on Jupiter Mountain. That was the same time her aunt had died, along with many others. The fires that raged that day were so great the mountain still bore scars from their touch.
It was there that she first met him, on Mt. Jupiter, the fires having driven her to a destroyed village after her aunt's expedition was killed by the bombs. She'd heard the wailing of a child and found Jinpei hidden in a cellar. They were later found by the monks as they and all belonging to the monastery came to put out the fire and search for survivors. Later the same day, Rikaw stumbled into the village and collapsed once he saw Jinpei nestled in her arms.
Jun had never really known her parents, they died when she was very young. She was raised by her Aunt Lucille, her father's sister. She'd been a scientist. They'd been living in Tebet for about a year, her aunt on a special project, when things went bad and they got stuck in the country. Despite all the fighting, her aunt had gone her own way, continuing her work. It killed her.
Left with no one, Jun took Jinpei to be her own. And in the same way, Rikaw had taken them to be his.
Though he never mentioned anything about what happened to him on that day, Jun had noticed over time that he never strayed far from Jinpei's presence. As soon as her adopted brother started to walk, Rikaw had approached her and insisted the boy had to learn certain things and only he could teach them. He told her that because of her kindness to the boy, he would teach her as well.
Doggedly, Rikaw strove to educate them in what he referred to as The Art. All their lessons were always conducted out of sight of the others, at their place. He'd insisted that what he was teaching them would help them stay alive.
Jun went along with it even though she'd not understood it all at first. Rikaw had proved as protective of her brother as she was and that was all the reason she needed. She often suspected the two might be in some way related, but he never said and she never asked.
Strangely enough, it was Rikaw who insisted she teach Jinpei the other languages she knew even as he helped her with her Tebetan. It'd been Rikaw who explained to her why it was dangerous to be female and also how to conceal the fact.
Jun roughly wiped at her eyes, a painful lump in her throat.
"Neechan, why does he want Rikaw?" Jinpei's eyes had also filled with tears.
"I - I don't know, Jinpei." Again the question of why this foreigner had come all this way for one specific boy bounced around in her mind.
"Though the child is gone, perhaps you might find another?" The Lama drew the foreigner's attention to the line of young eager faces behind him.
The stranger glanced toward them, a sad expression in his eyes. He searched through them, but it looked more like he was just being polite.
"Before you answer, why don't we first withdraw and have some tea? We can contemplate the day together and perhaps pray for enlightenment," the Lama said.
The foreigner seemed doubtful as T'lay translated the words, but consented to the Lama's suggestion anyway.
The Holy One smiled and returned to his litter. He asked the foreigner to walk beside him on the way.
All the children watched them go and some looked as if they would try to follow until several monks walked up to bar their path.
"Back to your places. You will be told when the foreigner's decision has been made. Trust the Holy One." Many disappointed sighs followed the pronouncement. The group of children dispersed. Jun never moved, however, her gaze never leaving the direction the grown ups had gone.
"Neechan?" Jinpei tugged questioningly at her ragged sleeve. "Isn't he going to take one of us?"
"I'm not sure, but I think I'm going to go try and find out." She looked down at him her face set. "Start the weaving without me, okay?"
Jinpei's young face crinkled with an uncharacteristic frown. "I wanna go with you."
"I know, but you can't."
"I want to help," he insisted.
Jun knelt down before her brother staring into his defiant little face. Her heart swelled in gratitude. "I really appreciate that, but I have to do this alone. You can help me best by starting the weaving. When I get back, I'll tell you a story if you do."
His face brightened immediately. "Okay!" He took off toward their quarters at a run. She stared after him until he disappeared from view.
As soon as he had, Jun took off down one of the alleys parallel to the main thoroughfare. Just as she assumed, the Lama's entourage was making its way toward the center of the large compound at an easy, leisurely pace. She looked down the connecting alleyways to catch glimpses of the foreigner as they walked on, not entirely sure what she expected to do there.
Everything in the vast universe had its place. She was sure that sneaking around following an important guest was probably not hers. Despite this, she found herself wishing for a way to get even closer and perhaps even eavesdrop on their conversation. She knew she should be ashamed of it, but she wasn't. A gnawing need had been growing inside her since the foreigner first mentioned Rikaw. Why did he come specifically for him? Why wouldn't he take one of them instead? How could this man have no idea of what it would mean to them to be able to leave there?
Jun risked another glance toward the foreigner at the next intersection and froze. The stranger was looking right at her! Forcing herself to move, she rushed out of his sight.
She'd have to make up her mind now. She'd known for a short while where the foreigner was likely to be taken. Dare she risk capture and the anger of the monks to try and quiet the questions buzzing in her head? Jun bit her lower lip in indecision for a moment. Shaking her head, she took off at a run toward the main temple structure. She had to know.
With unconscious grace, she leapt up and grabbed hold of a low hanging roof corner and swung herself up to it. Carefully moving over the slopped roof, she traveled from tiled roof to hatch roof, angled to flat, traveling steadily toward the largest structure in the compound.
The inside housed a large bronze Buddha that had been cared for by the monastery for centuries. The original small building which housed it still remained within, just as those that were built later to house the first. One to cover the other, like a children's puzzle, growing with each new layer until there was no room to build any more. It grew larger and larger as she approached, almost as if trying to rival the mountains around them.
Using cracks, protruding beams, and overhangs, Jun pulled herself upward, ever higher on the temple wall. As she went, she fervently prayed to every god and spirit that would listen and asked for understanding and forgiveness for what she was doing. The cool afternoon wind whipped about her making her way even more treacherous, the spirits of the air jealously guarding the temple as they should.
By the time she was able to reach the windows of the High Room, her arms and legs throbbed from the strain. She'd made it. She'd reached the High Room--a place only a privileged few were ever allowed to enter. It was the place she was sure the Lama would bring his important guest. The wind had calmed a little. The thick window shutters were open to catch the light of the sun. Jun's heart beat at a thousand miles a minute as she dared to take a peek inside.
The scent of sweet incense swirled past her as her eyes gazed on the wealth of color inside. Large braziers smoked lightly at the entryway to the room. Red, yellow, and orange banners swept from the tall wooden ceiling to the floor below. Bronze statues of the guardian spirits of Buddha sat along the walls of the room and all faced the direction of the door guarding the small altar at the far end.
Close to the altar, sitting before one of the largest windows, were the foreigner, T'lay, and the Holy One. Except for them and the spirits guarding the room, they were alone.
Jun sent one last prayer for the safekeeping of her soul and held her breath as she dared to sneak herself inside. Using the banners and statues for cover, she silently made her toward the three men.
"Things have not been quiet in our land for some time." T'lay spoke in soft tones. His manner was unusually polite and restrained. "The Holy One only wants what's best for all concerned. Surely you can see this is no real place for children."
The foreigner said nothing, his eyes drinking in the view of spanning cloud covered mountains. He sipped at his tea for a moment, as if he were carefully gathering his words, and then turned toward them.
"I understand the Holy One's concerns, but there are reasons why I can't take any of the other children." Jun felt a pain stab into her chest like a knife. "Once I've returned home, I promise to do what I can to have appropriate supplies and food sent to you. The ISO should be able to use some of its influence to have the Chunese government consent to this. There are also a number of other organizations that would be more than happy to help the children."
T'lay relayed the foreigner's words to the Lama. Jun could only sit and listen, her whole body cold.
"We would appreciate anything you could do for them. I thank you for this, yet I am also puzzled. Why would one such as yourself come all this way for only one specific child?" The Lama asked.
Jun gasped, this being one of the very questions she'd hoped to have answered. She hunkered down a little farther behind the statue, half afraid that somehow the Holy One already knew that she was there.
"I'm afraid I can't discuss my reasons. Let's just say the boy was to have been a part of something of extreme importance to us all."
"Ah..." The Lama nodded slowly, his gaze drifting to the view outside.
Silently, the three men drank their tea as they contemplated the soothing panorama. Within, Jun seethed with emotions as they clashed within her breast. He told them nothing! Why Rikaw? Why not choose one of them? Why weren't they good enough? The urge to jump out and ask was almost more than she could bear. What could be so terribly important that none of them but one would do? And she already knew his promises meant nothing. What could one foreigner do against all the might of the Chunese?
"Since you did travel all this way, I hope you will honor us by availing yourself of our hospitality. The way back, as T'lay can tell you, is a long one, and best taken at the start of a new day."
"I'm very grateful, Holy One. You honor me." Nambu bowed. The Lama's face crinkled as he chuckled in pleasure at the foreigner's politeness.
Jun ducked down and stayed perfectly still as the three men rose to their feet. As they headed toward the door, she risked a quick glance after them. To her horror, as her eyes rose, she realized the foreigner was looking back. Their eyes met. She saw the foreigner's brow rise. Before she could panic, he turned away and walked out the door.
Jun sank quietly out of sight, her body shaking, listening for any hint that the stranger was alarming the others of her presence. Nothing happened, and soon they were gone.
Once her heart slowed to more manageable speeds, she bowed to the floor and once more asked the spirits around her for forgiveness at her trespass. Promising them offerings after the evening meal, she quickly went back out the way she came.
After reaching the ground, Jun made her way back to her assigned quarters. She didn't dare push her luck any more than she already had that day. And though she'd not found out much, she needed time to mull over what she had.
"Neechan, you're back!" Jinpei jumped up from the dirt not far from the squat building where they slept. He and two other boys had been busy racing beetles. He bounced across the short yard and hugged her hard.
"Jinpei, I wasn't gone all that long." She pushed aside her worries and questions to smile at her brother. She quickly hugged him back. "Did you get all the weaving done?"
Jinpei abruptly wouldn't meet her eyes. "Ah, um, most of it?"
He sneaked a look at her face after a moment to see how she took the news. Not finding a too displeased expression waiting for him there, he decided to push his luck. "Do I still get a story?"
"Hm," Jun unknowingly mimicked the risen brow she'd seen on the foreigner not long before. "I don't know..."
"Oh, please, neechan! Please! I promise I'll get the rest of it done. Pretty please!" His eyes pleaded with her almost as much as his words.
She couldn't help giving in. "Okay, okay, you'll get a story. Let's go finish the weaving and I'll tell it you while we work."
Her brother ran off to get their working materials while Jun chose the ground before one of the few, scrawny trees nearby and sat down. With practiced ease, she wove the dried reeds as she recited in English one of the few stories she remembered from her life before. Sleeping Beauty... It was one of her most treasured stories. She told him this one and a few others, some Tebetan and some not, many times, but he seemed never to tire of them. Sleeping Beauty was one of his favorites as well--but mostly due to the grand fight between the dragon and the prince. As usual, when she got to that part of the story, he scrambled to find a stick to use as a makeshift sword and danced through a fierce imaginary battle with the dragon himself even as Jun told of it.
"I'll save you from the dragon, neechan," he exclaimed.
She happily applauded at his bravery even as she laughed at his antics. But even though she seemed pleased enough, it was all for his benefit. She told this story at times to lift her own spirits when she was feeling down, but today it seemed to work entirely the opposite. As she recited it, she came to realize that just like the fairy tale itself, princes weren't real. They weren't any out there and wouldn't come to rescue you in times of danger.
Up until he was taken, she'd fancied to herself that Rikaw was their prince. She'd always thought that somehow, sooner or later he would be the one to find a way to steal them away from the monastery before it was too late. Yet in the end, it was Rikaw and not them who'd needed rescuing -- And no one had been there for him. When their own time came, as it was inevitable that it would, no one would be there for them either.
With sad eyes, Jun stared at the sun as it slowly descended toward the horizon.
A loud bell rang throughout the compound. It was time for the evening meal.
"Jinpei, let's get all this put away." Her brother got rid of the items even faster than he brought them out. They then moved to follow the others toward the kitchens.
"Do you think they'll serve something special tonight, neechan?" His eyes were eager. "That man is so important! Everybody says so. Do you think he'll pick someone tonight?"
"I don't know, Jinpei. We'll have to see." She was already sure he'd pick no one, but didn't have the heart to tell him.
"Neechan, what's a scien - scien - "
"Yeah! That's the one! A scientist," he said.
"Well... a scientist is like, like a sorcerer, except instead of dealing with spirits or magic, he works with science." Jun saw her brother frown. "A scientist knows how things work; like the trees, or the sun. He would know why the wind blows or how the birds sing." Her parents had been scientists like her aunt, that much she remembered of them. And they had known all these and many other things.
"A sorcerer..." Jinpei's eyes grew wide. "Can he, can he tell these things what to do? Can he turn himself into a dragon?"
"Hm, they can tell some things what to do, but not everything," she said. "And, though I'm not sure, I don't think they can turn into dragons. They don't even believe in them. They don't even believe in spirits."
"That's dumb! Everybody knows the world's full of them. Otherwise nothing would ever run right. Isn't that so, neechan?"
Jun ruffled Jinpei's hair, smiling at the intense look on her brother's face. "I don't really know. But you may very well be right."
They stood in line outside the kitchen door to receive their share of dinner. Rather than being handed their portion and being sent back outside, the monks led the children on through to the dining area on the other side. From the youngest to the oldest, all chattered excitedly at the unexpected event. Normally, the only times they were allowed inside were for a few of the Holy days. It only proved to them yet again how important their current guest really was. Their dinner was even unusually lavish. They were served large portions of wind dried goat meat, cheese, tsamba, and butter. Jun knew this was more than they could really afford, that they'd have to work long and hard to replace it all, but no one seemed to care. A feeling of excitement and celebration mingled in the air. She felt none of it--she knew it was all a lie. The food soured inside her like rotten milk. Why did the Holy One permit this? He already knew the foreigner would take none of them. Was this a way to apologize to them or was he hoping to bribe the stranger into changing his mind?
Searching for them in the crowd, Jun found the foreigner sitting at the place of honor on the Lama's right. T'lay, for once, was beaming, for he'd been allowed to sit there as well, thanks to his present role as translator. Jun noticed that as the foreigner ate and talked, his eyes were roaming the room as if he were looking for something. She crouched down a little, certain he was looking for her. Was he hoping to single her out so he could finally tell the Lama about what she had done? Jun had even less appetite than she had before.
"Neechan, isn't this great!"
She forced herself to smile. "Yes, Jinpei, wonderful."
The Lama spoke a few words before the meal was over, but still said nothing about the foreigner's decision. He blessed them all as they were dismissed.
Jun kept her eyes on the foreigner during this time, even as she snuck some of her food beneath her shirt for the offerings she'd promised to make earlier. As the foreigner moved to stand, his coat caught on the edge of the table. As he turned to pry it loose, she caught a glimpse of the inside of the jacket. Sticking out from an inner pocket were the papers she saw him pull out before. It was then she remembered that he'd looked at them when he talked about Rikaw. She couldn't catch a glimpse of anything else as one of the monks hurried her outside with the others.
The air had turned cooler with the disappearance of the sun. Sending Jinpei ahead, Jun braved the cold to make her offerings. The wind howled, lightly biting all those it touched. By the time she was able to return to her room, she was chilled.
When she arrived, Jun found that Jinpei had already retrieved their worn blanket from its niche and placed it over their pallet on the far side of the room. The other ten children they shared the room with had already arranged theirs as well. Kal came in to check on them a while later. He extinguished the small candle in the room and bid them good night before going to check on some of the others.
Whispers ran rampant in the ensuing darkness as everyone found themselves too excited to sleep. Speculations flew back and forth about who the foreigner would pick and where he would take them. The one he chose would be blessed beyond belief; for surely this man was some sort of king. Riches and wealth would be theirs! They'd be inheritors of a large foreign estate! Surely he'd pick one of them before his departure in the morning.
Jun tried to shut out the eager voices. It hurt to listen to them. It hurt because she knew all their hopes were for nothing. The foreigner was taking none of them! All their dreams would turn to dust with the rising of the sun.
Once they all finally calmed down enough to sleep, Jun found that she herself could not. Her questions had come back to haunt her and she knew only too well that any chance that they might ever be answered would vanish with the arrival of the sun. And though it was foolish to think this way, she felt in her heart that only these answers might show her the way to get out of this place.
Though she hated to even think of it, she was only too aware her time at the monastery was growing short. Sooner or later, the tricks Rikaw taught her to disguise her sex wouldn't work anymore. Sooner or later, one of Them would come and realize she wasn't what she seemed. Already parts of her were changing, curving out, growing faster than before. It became more difficult every day to walk like a boy. Soon, it would become hard to even look like one. Then even the dumbest of Them would be able to figure it out. When one did, she'd be taken away like the others. Yet, worse than the fate that would then await her would be the fact she'd be taken away from Jinpei.
She'd held so much hope in the foreigner's coming! If he'd chosen her, she was sure she could have convinced him to take her brother as well. Why only Rikaw? Why were none of them good enough to save too? Jun sat up shaking with anger and pain. Why?
She would know why!
Carefully, removing her legs out from her brother's arms, she rose silently to her feet a determined look on her face. Gingerly, she made her way past the others out into the small hallway outside their door. Rather than going down the ladder, Jun opened the wooden shutters of the small window there. With practiced ease, she pulled herself out and up.
The cold wind bit into her exposed skin, making her shiver. Jun moved from rooftop to rooftop not willing to let it slow her down. She knew where the foreigner was. There was only one place he could be. He'd be at the guest building where all their visitors slept.
With barely a sound, she lifted the latch on the door and slipped inside. She dropped to her knees and sent quick prayers to the two statues guarding the rooms from evil spirits. Staring at the floor, she made her way past them, on through the small shrine room and the private bathing area, on to the guest rooms in the back. Of the three rooms, Jun knew two would be occupied. She chose the first on the right, sure it would be the place of highest honor and therefore given to the foreigner.
Taking a long, deep breath, Jun opened the door to the room.
By the thin shafts of moonlight that made their way into the room from the closed shutters, she spotted the foreigner's sleeping form in the rear section. Silently, slipping all the way inside, she allowed her eyes to roam over the rest of the room.
Jun spotted the foreigner's coat, folded neatly in a corner. Glancing one last time at the sleeping body before daring to go further, she slinked toward it. Within moments, she found the papers she was looking for.
She quickly leafed through them, straining to make out what they were in the dark. On top of one of the papers, she found a picture of Rikaw clipped to it. Her heart ached as she stared at it for it was truly him. She looked at the writing on the pages and saw it wasn't the familiar Tebetan script. Yet though she couldn't read them, something about the symbols looked incredibly familiar. There had to be a way she could find out what they meant!
"What are you doing?"
Jun twisted around at the unexpected voice the papers in her hands falling to the ground. She jumped back pressing her back to the wall as she spotted the foreigner sitting up in his bedding.
"It's you," he exclaimed.
Jun's heart threatened to explode inside her. He recognized her! Surely now he would tell the others of her intrusion. The monks would take this as a personal shame, especially because such a transgression had been committed by one such as she. How could she have been so stupid. She wanted to wail in misery.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" The foreigner's Tebetan was slow and heavily slurred, but understandable. Still, Jun said nothing; she had no intention of answering any of his questions. She was the one looking for answers here!
"Why aren't we good enough for you?" The question left her mouth before she could stop herself.
The foreigner's brow rose in surprise. "You speak Japanese?"
Jun didn't realize that was what she'd done until he brought it up. His question had been asked in the same language. Suddenly, the mystery of the foreigner's strange accent was made clear--her aunt's accent had been the same as his. This man was Japanese! Bitter tears rose in her eyes as she realized they'd all been rejected by one of her own. "Answer my question," she demanded.
The foreigner's brow rose again. He sighed. "It's got nothing to do with whether any of you are good enough or not. It's just that I'm looking for something very specific."
"That's not an answer!" Jun took an angry step forward. She had nothing to lose anymore. If she must take the punishment, she would have her reward as well. She shook with her need and her fear.
The foreigner sighed again. He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "The boy I came for, Rikaw, had some very special skills, skills he learned from his family. These skills are extremely hard to come by and I have need of them. That is the only reason I came here--because of his skills."
Skills? Rikaw had special skills? Could he be talking about the Art? "Jinpei and I learned from Rikaw. He taught us many things! We might have the skills you're looking for." Jun took another step forward.
Nambu's brow shot up a third time. "Jinpei?"
"Yes, my little brother. Rikaw taught the Art to both of us before he was taken away." A kernel of hope flared in her chest. Might Rikaw inadvertently have saved them after all?
"How old is your brother?"
Jun didn't dare hesitate. "He's almost five."
She felt her hope vanish. "You still won't take us--why?"
His gaze rose to meet hers. "I just can't. I'm sorry."
"But we have his skills!" Her voice cracked.
The foreigner would no longer meet her gaze. "I know this will probably sound cruel and unfair to you, but because I can't explain all that is involved, it is the only reason I can give you for not taking either of you. You're but a young girl and your brother only a child."
Jun bit her lip drawing blood. Tears flowed unnoticed down her cheeks.
Here it was again. It had come down to what it always came down to--she was female. She'd always hoped things would be different in other countries. So many other things were. But it looked like in this one thing, at least, they were the same--women were of the lowest caste. And because of this and the fact she was an orphan as well, her prospects were few. At the most, she could keep her disguise working until she came of age. Then she could leave the monastery and find a local man to marry her, if they'd have her, or join a foreign missionary outpost and become a nun. At worst, though this was the most likely option, she would be picked up by one of Them and dragged away to live the rest of her life as a prostitute. But why? What crime did she commit in a previous life to demand that Buddha punish her like this?
"Look, I promise you I will do all I can to have you and your brother taken out of here."
"Liar! Liar!" Jun put her hands over her ears and rushed from the room. She didn't want to hear his promises, his lies. She didn't want to hope; she didn't want the pain when it was crushed again.
Ignoring the foreigner's call, she rushed through the building and out into the night. She ran blindly down the compound's narrow streets until she finally couldn't run anymore. She fell on the ground, badly scraping her knee and elbow, but she didn't care. Though she was lying on the hard cold ground, she felt as if she'd never stop falling. Why? Why? Why? WHY?
It was over--her last hope shattered. She would be taken, there was no denying it. She would be taken and Jinpei would be left all alone... Alone, like she had been...
No! It wouldn't be that way. She possessed Rikaw's special skills. She'd learned all that he taught them--everything! She'd learned it for Jinpei's sake; she'd learned it for him. And she was good, Rikaw told her so. If she could do all those things, why was it so important that she be male? It made no sense! She wouldn't give in.
If the foreigner didn't want to help them, that was fine. She didn't need him! Jun would find a way for her and Jinpei to make it on their own. They had to. All she needed to do was find a way out of this place. Though always kind, the monks would never willingly allow them to leave. It would go badly for them if they did, or they would have done so long ago. She had to find a way out that wouldn't involve them.
She sat up trying to find a way for that to be. Her eyes widened--perhaps she could use the foreigner to get them out after all.
Jun rose shakily to her feet, her eyes gleaming with new determination. They would soon be free.
As quietly as she left, Jun sneaked back inside her quarters. Her body felt drained and exhausted, but another part of her was filled with exhilaration. For the first time, she felt that her fate wasn't resting on someone else's hands. This time, whether for good or ill, she was making the decision on her own. She liked the feeling.
"Jinpei." Jun knelt down and whispered the name close into her brother's ear. "Jinpei, wake up."
The five year old whimpered for a moment and then turned on his side still fast asleep. Jun frowned knowing she should have known better than to have expected it to work. Her brother normally slept like the dead. With no time to deal properly with him at the moment, she wrapped him up in their blanket and then lifted his slim form into her arms.
With a strong heave, she threw him over her shoulder once she got him out of the room. Gingerly, she navigated the ladder down to the first floor. Jinpei didn't even stir. Jun quietly got them outside.
Moving from shadow to shadow, she took her brother toward the more isolated sections near the protective wall. When she found a quiet, out of the way corner, she set her brother down.
"Jinpei!" She shook him hard. "Wake up!"
"Ne - neechan?" Sleep-glazed eyes slit open to stare at her in the darkness.
"I need for you to wake up now, Jinpei. I can't carry you all the way. You're too heavy."
"I'm sleepy, neechan..." His eyes closed again.
"Oh? Does that mean you want me to go on this adventure all by myself?"
His eyes snapped open. "An adventure? Like in the stories?" His voice squeaked.
"That's what I said, wasn't it?" Jun asked. "So get up, sleeping beauty, we have things to do."
Her brother sat up all signs of his previous sleepiness gone. "What? How? Neechan, tell me!"
"Shshshsh." She whopped him lightly on the head. "Do you want the Holy One to hear you?"
Jinpei's eyes grew wide and he clamped his hands over his mouth and shook his head no.
"Okay, that's much better. Let's go." Jun picked up their blanket and her brother's hand before leading him out to the street. Taking a convoluted route, she led them to the kitchens.
"Jinpei, stay right here and watch for anyone that might be coming, okay?"
"What for, neechan? What are you gonna do?"
"This is just part of the adventure. Here, wrap yourself up in this so you won't get too cold." Jun hadn't dared tell him that she intended to steal. If her actions were going to damn her in her next life, she had no intention of dragging him down with her. "I won't be long."
She sidled up to the kitchen door and listened for any sounds that might indicate someone was within. Hearing nothing, she bypassed the latch and slipped inside. Moving carefully in the darkness, Jun found a small sack and stuffed it full of what leftovers she could find from the evening meal. As she took every piece, she apologized to the spirits profusely for what she was doing. Once finished, she slipped back outside to join her waiting brother.
"Okay, Jinpei, we can go now."
"Where, neechan?" he asked.
"We're going to the stables. T'lay and the foreigner will be leaving in the morning. We're going with them."
"We are?" His eyes grew round. "The foreigner picked us?"
The eagerness in his voice made her heart ache. "No, he didn't pick us. He's not going to choose anyone. But we're going to use him to get out."
"We won't need him or anyone else after that. We have each other; don't ever forget that." Jun just hoped and prayed it would be enough. "Come on."
Jun led them quietly back toward the gates. When they came close, she veered to the right to a long building set against the wall. As quietly as she could manage, she opened the large stable doors just wide enough for the two of them to sneak on inside.
The warmth gathered within was a shock to their wind chilled skin. The heavy scent of animal sweat and leavings washed over them clinging to their clothes. Jinpei clung to his sister's side as they waited for their eyes to adjust to the place. Querying sounds came from the back as the yaks, goats, asses, and other animals housed there wondered who'd wandered into their home.
After several minutes, Jun moved away from the door, her brother in tow. She made straight for T'lay's distinctive covered cart. Moving to the back, she was relieved to find the cart had already been unloaded of its provisions and reloaded with the merchandise T'lay would be selling for them. Carefully shifting what she could, she made a place for them to slip into between the stacks of baskets and barrels of butter and cheese. The two of them squeezed tight into a corner even as Jun set the cover back over them as best she could. She cradled Jinpei before her and then covered them both up with their own blanket just in case. If all went as she expected, they'd be long gone from there before anyone realized what they'd done.
"Neechan, are we, are we doing a good thing? Maybe, maybe I'm not really ready for an adventure..." Jinpei's voice quivered lightly.
"Shshsh, just go to sleep now. I'll take care of everything." Jun kissed the top of his head and hugged him hard. This had to be a good thing--it had to be.
Jun woke with a start as her body rattled against the side of the cart as it lurched forward. It was time.
Quirks of small pain and discomfort called for her attention as her body rocked to the swaying of the cart. She forgot all about them as light suddenly poured through the fibers of the covering over them. She tensed, realizing the cart was out of the stables. It came to a stop a short distance away.
Muffled voices grew closer. Jun stayed perfectly still recognizing one of the voices as T'lay's. She held her breath as the trickiest part of the plan arrived. Before every departure, T'lay or one of the monks, normally checked the contents of the cart. Her plan, their only hope, lay on the slim chance that distracted by the unusual presence of the foreigner, they wouldn't check it
"Shshsh." Jun brought her lips as close to her brother's ear as she could. Not now!
The cart creaked and after a few more moments jerked into motion. When it didn't stop again, Jun felt herself relax. They'd made it out of Ximang! Yet, instead of the overwhelming joy she thought she'd feel at the fact, all she could think about were the others who didn't make it out with them.
They'd been riding silently for a number of hours when Jinpei began wiggling against her side.
"Ne - neechan, I've got to go..."
Jun bit her lip. "Try to hold it for a while."
"I can't! I really, really have to go."
"Jinpei!" She snapped at him, annoyed at her discomforts and nervousness as well as his own.
Her brother whimpered in misery for a moment but said nothing else.
She'd have to do something about this. Sooner or later he'd be unable to hold it anymore. She bit her lip again undecided on what she should do. If her brother soiled himself, they possessed no other clothes for him to change into and T'lay was likely to notice the smell. If they tried to leave the cart, they were sure to be spotted. Either way... "I'm sorry, Jinpei."
Jun sat up as best she could and then took in a large lungfull of air. "Stop the cart! My brother has to go!"
The cart came to an abrupt stop jostling the two of them against one of the barrels. With as much dignity as she could muster with her numb, tingling limbs, she pulled the cover back and climbed out of the cart before helping her brother out.
From what she could see, they'd made it to about half way down the mountain. Already the trees didn't look as stunted or repressed as they did in the higher regions.
"All right, Jinpei, go behind those rocks over there," she said.
"Yes, neechan!" The boy made for the rocks as fast as his still wakening legs would take him.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jun risked a glance at the two men she was sure were watching them. Both had turned on their seats, looks of surprise still etched on their faces.
"Jinpei, hurry it up!"
The foreigner slowly dismounted from the cart. Jun stepped around to put the main bulk of the cart between them.
"Oh, why do these things happen only to me?" T'lay moaned. "You children know it is forbidden for you to get on my cart. Do you know how far behind schedule it will put me to have to take you back?" He gazed at her in bottomless misery.
"You don't have to worry. We're not going back."
"I thought I made it clear back at the monastery that I couldn't take you with me." This came from the foreigner.
Jun set her hands on her hips and tried to look as confident as she could manage. Her stomach turned into knots inside. "Sir, you were very clear. But we're not here to go with you."
A look of horror crossed T'lay's face. "Oh no! You can't mean you expect to come with me. I have no room for children!" He dragged a jug from a cord beneath his seat and took a long desperate swig out of it.
"We're not planning on staying with you either. My brother and I are quite capable of taking care of ourselves."
Jinpei came out from behind the rocks and quickly made his way over to his sister's side. Jun placed a protective arm around him.
"Were you that unhappy? Were they treating you badly?" the foreigner asked.
T'lay, Jun, and Jinpei all looked at the him in open faced shock. "Dr. Nambu, please, no one would ever mistreat children there! The Holy One would never allow such a thing!"
"Is this true?" The foreigner stared directly at Jun waiting for her to answer the question.
"They took care of us as best they could. It was home. For those of our station, we could never have received better."
The foreigner frowned at her words, his face growing even more serious than before. "Then why are you leaving?"
It was Jun's turn to frown. Surely he knew why! "Because, like Rikaw, we too would eventually be taken."
"Taken?" The foreigner glanced over at T'lay. The latter wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Yes, they would take me from my brother, and then later he would be taken as well. I won't allow such a thing. He needs me."
"I need her!" The two of them clung to each other.
"Who would take you away?"
Did this man know nothing? How couldn't he know? Everyone knew! "The Chunese, or one of their friends. They've always come to the monastery to look for girls, sometimes boys. I have been hiding myself from them as Rikaw taught me, but soon I won't be able to hide what I am anymore."
"Neechan!" Her brother looked terrified. Jun had never confided this to him before.
"Don't worry, Jinpei, it doesn't matter," she said.
"T'lay, is what she says true?"
The driver still wouldn't look at the foreigner. "To our great shame and sorrow--yes. But there is nothing we can do. Nothing the Great One could do. They are too strong... This is why he placed such faith in you."
The foreigner said nothing.
"We will go our own way now. Don't try to stop us." Jun grabbed their small sack of food out of the cart. "Come on, Jinpei. We've bothered these people enough."
Jun looked back and was surprised at the earnest expression on the foreigner's face. "We're not going back."
"Yes, I know that, but, but at least, at least let us give you a ride to the bottom of the mountain. It will get very cold up here at night."
Jun frowned, wondering why he should suddenly care about their welfare. She glanced over at T'lay. The driver looked as surprised as she at the offer. After a moment, however, he nodded that it would be so.
She hesitated, still unsure of what to do. Finally, she just decided to risk it. As soon as she and Jinpei were back on board, the foreigner resumed his seat. With a glum look, T'lay urged his yaks forward.
T'lay stopped the cart an hour or so later to rest the yaks and have lunch. He dipped heavily into his bottle, ignoring the two children as much as he could. Jun took her bag and her brother, and moved a short distance away from the cart to take their meal. Without a word, the foreigner approached them and left them a bladder full of water. Jun stared after him as he returned to the cart.
"I like him, neechan," Jinpei said.
"Don't even think about it! It's not going to happen. The two of us are all we need." Jun chewed on her lower lip a moment before popping a piece of dry bread in her mouth.
"I still think he's nice."
Late in the afternoon, T'lay once more brought the cart to a stop. The dirt path they'd followed down the mountain had broadened into a road as they reached the valley. It later merged with a paved way. In the distance, they could see the outline of a fairly large city.
"Dr. Nambu, the children can come no further." T'lay wouldn't look at the foreigner directly. "There are Chunese officials at the city gate. They will take the children if they don't have the proper papers and if the required bribes aren't made." He licked his lips as if they were terribly dry.
"Come on, Jinpei. It's time to get off." Jun glanced at the horizon and the city nestled there. If things didn't work out for them out here, she and Jinpei might have to try and figure out a way to get in there. She wasn't at all sure how hard that'd be.
"I will pray for you, children." T'lay said. "I will also tell the Holy One what has become of you. I'm sure he will pray for you as well." He bowed slightly toward them, his words sincere.
Jun felt a flash of gratitude at the gesture.
"Thank you, T'lay. Goodbye." June helped Jinpei off the cart, her eyes already searching the area for any likely places where they might find shelter.
Jun looked back. The foreigner was staring at them a frown on his face. Abruptly, his expression cleared. "You'd be a lot safer in the city. I have papers we can use to get you in. I have the needed bribe money as well."
She stared at him, confused, wanting to ask why he would do this for them. He'd made it so clear before that he wanted to have nothing to do with them. What had changed? "Why do you want to help us? I - I don't understand."
"I'll need some information for the papers. I already know your brother's name, what's yours?" The foreigner took out some documents from his coat as if she had already agreed.
"Well?" he asked.
"J- Jun. My name is Jun."
The foreigner took out a pen and wrote it down. He wrote a number of other things down, though Jun didn't know what they were. Occasionally, he'd ask her a question or two. Some she could answer; others, she couldn't.
"I guess that'll do. Shall we go on?" The foreigner looked over at them.
Jun stared at him still confused by his actions. Jinpei, however, didn't hesitate and climbed back into the cart. "Come on, neechan!"
After hesitating a moment longer, Jun moved to follow suit.
"Dr. Nambu, are you, are you sure about this?" T'lay seemed as confused as Jun herself.
"Yes, T'lay. Please drive on."
"As you say..."
In another hour, they reached the city gates.
"Come down off the cart." A hefty Chunese soldier signaled for them to get off.
T'lay, Jun, Jinpei, and the foreigner moved to comply as two other Chunese soldiers moved forward to check through the cart's cargo. The soldier that had spoken took their papers and riffled through them.
"So, you got these two from the monastery, did you? An awful long way for their kind... All paperwork must have the monastery listed as the Shiroyuki Orphanage. You will change this on them now." The foreigner looked surprised but quickly complied. As he finished the changes, he handed the papers back to the soldier as well as a number of crisp bills. The soldier smiled.
"Hm, one boy and one girl." He spared Jun and Jinpei a glance. "A fair skinned one at that. Still, they both look like boys. Have you tried to find out which is the girl? If not, I'd be happy to check for you. I promise not to use her too much."
The other guards chuckled.
T'lay's eyes fell to the ground. Jun and Jinpei both followed suit. Before she did so, however, Jun saw the foreigner tense. She felt a tendril of fear, not sure what would happen next.
"If that's all, we'd like to be on our way." The foreigner's voice was cold.
The guard didn't seem to notice. "Ah, she must be a virgin then. I guess I can't blame you much." The guard gave them a leering smile.
"Can we go?" Nambu's voice got even colder.
"Yes, yes, go on ahead." The soldier waved to his comrades. T'lay quickly shooed the children back into the cart.
"Neechan, what's a virgin?" Jinpei asked.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot. "Shshsh, not now. Not now." She glanced back, feeling someone's eyes on her. It was the foreigner. As soon as their eyes met, he quickly looked away. Jun wasn't sure what to make of it.
Jinpei weaved his way from one side of the cart to the other as they moved in through the city gates. Buildings, old and new, rose beside them on the streets. Many had a familiar feel like the buildings at the monastery. Others seemed strange and out of place, made in the European and modern styles, things Jinpei had never seen before. All the streets were paved, and T'lay's cart lumbered easily through them. Crowds seemed to be everywhere, like ants in a hive, moving to and fro with a zillion destinations. Other carts filled the streets, but there were cars as well. Jinpei ogled as they passed a street where a lumbering truck was moving toward them.
"Neechan! Neechan! A dragon!" Jinpei's voice quivered in fear and awe as he raised his hand to point at it.
Jun remembered the pictures in her storybook enough to know it wasn't one. "Dragons aren't that small, Jinpei."
"Wow." His brown eyes grew large and round.
T'lay followed a small road paralleling the city's short outer wall for most of the way. After a short while, he turned into a small roadway that ended at a walled area with a gate. He stood up after bringing the cart to a halt. "I'm back. Open the gate," he shouted.
"T'lay!" They saw a young man's face peer out through the gate and then rush to open them. T'lay steered the cart off to the side of the small yard, over toward a squat open-faced building. A bell rang around them and a number of men poured out into the area and started unloading the cart. Jun and Jinpei jumped out to get out of their way.
"Thank you for the ride, T'lay." The foreigner extracted a number of bills and handed them over to the Tebetan.
"I am here but to serve, sir." His eyes twinkled as he took the offered payment.
"Come on, Jinpei." Jun took her brother's hand and started toward the gate. They were in. They were free! She thought of thanking the foreigner for getting them this far and then thought better of it. The sooner they cut off all ties with the past, the sooner they could make their new lives here. They'd almost reached the gate when Jun heard quick footsteps coming up behind them.
Jun stopped but didn't turn around, puzzled he would have them hesitate yet again. "We really have to go now. We must find a place before it gets dark"
"That won't be necessary," he said.
She tensed, her heart skipping a beat. Had all this been a ruse of some kind up to now? Was he going to have T'lay's men take them and then send them back to the monastery?
"I'd like the two of you to return with me to my home."
"Neechan, did you hear?" Her brother's face had lit up with joy. Jun didn't move.
"I heard." But she didn't understand it. They hadn't been good enough for him before. What had changed? "I appreciate your kindness, but it really isn't necessary. We'll be all right on our own."
"Neechan!" Jinpei tried to pull his hand away from hers, but she wouldn't let him.
"You can't stay here," the foreigner said. "Conditions are even worse than I was led to believe. I'm willing to take you with me. I can find a good family to take you in, one that will take both of you so you can stay together. This city is no place for you."
Jun glanced back at the foreigner and saw only sincerity in his face. She bit her lip. She and Jinpei could survive here, of that she was sure, but life would be hard and there would be danger. This man was suddenly not only offering them passage from this place, but a family for the two of them. Why?
"Come, I have rooms at a hotel not too far from here. It'll be warm there and they'll have fresh food." The foreigner waved at them to follow as he walked past.
"Neechan..." Jinpei's eyes pleaded with her own. "Can't we go with him? Please?"Jun bit her lip again and glanced at the departing foreigner before once more looking into her brother's face. A life of hardship or the hope of something better. Dare she let this chance pass by? Not entirely sure she was doing the right thing, Jun nodded and headed after him.