PART 39 - FREE TO A GOOD HOME
The Palomino Bay put into port at the Spontoon Archipelago two days later, the vibrant blue shape of the Glass Goose perched on its broad foredeck in the bright tropical sun as the ship's horn sounded out like a fanfare. Wives, children, and girlfriends waiting at the dock on South Island set up a cheer as the gangplank was lowered and the crewmen filed off to greet them. A row of females dressed in bright flower leis and colorful sarongs did a welcoming hula, singing a variant of Morning Song for welcoming returning wayfarers as the white seabirds wheeled overhead.
Among them, the sleek, dark figure of Huakela danced, her rich voice rising with the others as a wide, bright toothed smile set unshakably on her beaming features beneath shining copper eyes. She broke ranks as soon as her husband came down the gangplank, rushing across the dock and nearly bowling him over as she threw her arms around him and smothered him in kisses, her joyful tears soaking into his tan fur as she rubbed her face against his.
The rabbit doe shifted her duffel bag over her shoulder of her jacket and adjusted her cloth cap between her long ears, leaning in to whisper to her feline compatriot. "Y'know, Gwen n' Loretta ain't gonna be too happy with us givin' 'em th' slip like that."
She jerked her head toward the Palomino Bay's railing, where the distant figures of the vixen and raccoon leaned, craning their necks and looking a bit nonplussed as they scanned the gathering below.
The brown furred tabby let out a sigh and nodded as she gave them a last backwards glance. "Oh I know, but you know as well as I do that vanishing mysteriously is part and parcel of what we do. I think they'll understand when they find the note we left them."
Jane flicked an ear and turned away to fall into step beside her partner. "Yeah, I reckon. Still don't like it, tho. Never do."
Dorothy gave the rabbit doe's shoulder a squeeze as they made their way down the dock. "It's simpler this way. Fewer loose ends to tie up."
Both females heads whipped around, startled, as a low voice sounded out to the feline's other side, accompanied by a soft rustle . "Fewer is still more than none, O Sister. It would be good of you both to come with me so that certain conversations may be had before you depart from our shores."
Both cat and rabbit recoiled in shock at the sight of a female figure
clad in a grass skirt and cape, her features obscured by a kapok
festooned wooden mask.
The figure cocked her head, her sinuous tail waving gently behind her. "How do you do what you do, you who call yourself Jane Early in this time before your birth?"
The rabbit doe's ears drooped and she let out a sigh. "Touché, ma'am." She turned to Dorothy. "I reckon thar ain't no point in arguin', is thar?"
The brown furred tabby gave a brief shake of her head, and turned to their masked interlocutor, her eyes glittering as she bobbed her head. "Lead the way, please."
Huakela's copper eyes gleamed as she hugged her husband tight, her chin propped on his shoulder as she watched the trio fade into the crowd. She smiled knowingly and then turned to nuzzle his cheek.
When the young canine had caught her breath, she looked at the raccoon and vixen sadly with her liquid brown eyes. "I have... I have had the running all around the decks below and I did not have the finding them, if... if... if you please."
Loretta pursed her lips, shaking her head ruefully. "I could have saved you the trouble if you'd have just let me finish before running off, Vanya. Their luggage was gone from the cabin. They've left."
Gwen let out a sigh, shoving off from the railing with a crestfallen look on her face. "You'd think they'd at least say goodbye."
Her raccoon partner straightened up and turned to look over at their bright blue seaplane. "I'd think they'd at least pay us the rest of what they owe us. Overhauling GeeGee isn't going to be ch..."
She trailed off as she noticed the door hanging slightly ajar. Her dark mask compressed under a furrowed brow as she walked cautiously over to the plane and pulled the hatch open, peering inside the opening. She cocked an eyebrow as she spotted something fluttering in front of the forward windshield.
She glanced over her shoulder and beckoned to her partner. "Hey Gwen, c'mere."
"Dearest Gwen, Loretta, and Vanya. I'm sorry Miss Early and I have to slip away without saying goodbye in person, but in our business it's usually for the best to be discreet. With that in mind we are certain we can count upon you to keep our involvement in this whole affair as much to yourselves as possible, which means that you will be receiving the full share of well deserved glory for your heroic actions. You will also be receiving the full payment promised you with an additional bonus of..." Her eyes went wide as she gasped, and wordlessly showed the figure to her partner, who let out a squeak as her dark hands went to her muzzle. With shaking hands, Loretta continued reading.
"... take the following numbered code and password to your local Trans-Oceanic Exchange office and the money will be wired to whatever account you choose in whatever amounts you wish to break it into. We hope you can continue to prosper in all of your ventures with this justly earned reward. In closing, it was a joy and an honor to get to know you, and a pleasure to work with you. Best of luck and warmest wishes to each of you. Yours Sincerely and with Affection, Dorothy Pearl." As she turned to stare in amazement at Gwen, another bit of folded paper and a photograph slipped out of the envelope and landed on the floor.
Vanya snatched them up before her companions could react, and handed them to the vixen with a smile.
"Here is more. I vish I could have the reading of these vords." Gwen took them and looked them over. The photo was a slightly blurred print of Dorothy, younger, with a more innocent demeanor, but her eyes were still quite striking despite the poor quality. She turned it over and found more writing on the back.
The vixen cocked an eyebrow as she read it to her companions.
"P.S. Dear Gwen. Please convey my apologies to your fiancé that I wasn't able to sit for him. If he can use this then he's welcome to it."
She pocketed it with a smile and examined the note, observing that it was written in clear block letters in a different hand from the letter and photo. "This one seems to be from Jane." She cleared her throat.
"Dear Gals, it was awesome working with you all. I just know you all are gonna go on to great things. Since I like you and reckon you all are straight shooters, here's a few other numbers you might be interested in. Vanya's gonna need her Songmark tuition from someplace. Sorry, Loretta, the Bucks aren't gonna take the series for decades yet. Use these in good health, and good luck. Jane."
Her brow furrowed, and she showed the page to Loretta, who's grey eyes flickered back and forth across the rows of numbers as she pursed her lips. "These... these are World Series results for the next ten years."
She shook her head, giving a wry smile to her partner and the young, golden furred canine at her side. "Just when I thought those two were done turning the rational world upside down..."
Gwen nodded, folding the paper and slipping it carefully into the pocket of her coveralls with the photograph, patting it as she returned Loretta's grin. "Yeah, I'm really gonna miss 'em too."
The two friends clasped their hands and pulled one another into a hug, then turned to Vanya and drew her into their embrace as well.
They had accompanied the Wise One to the docks, and at her direction climbed aboard a water taxi with a bronze idol figure mounted on the prow, driven by a taciturn male fox wearing a dark patterned lava-lava and a shark-tooth necklace. The vessel had moved through the boat traffic of the lagoon as effortlessly as the grass-caped figure wove through the crowds at either end of their journey, completely unnoticed by the throngs of tourists on South Island and the crowds of government functionaries and business people on Meeting Island. Scarcely a word had passed between them, merely gestures from the masked priestess as she guided them to their destination, then inside and down two sets of steps to where they sat now, before taking up a position behind the trio of figures who sat in the shadows at the other end of the table.
On the left she recognized Heywood Cord, his athletic frame now clad in a well-tailored suit of dark material, some sticking plasters on his impassive face the only indication of his recent ordeal on the pirate freighter.
A male ferret dressed in a light-colored suit over a subdued native-pattern shirt with no tie sat at the head of the table, a locally-rolled cigarette smoldering at his side atop another Spontoon Archipelago-shaped souvenir ashtray. Dorothy's uncanny eye for detail noted that once again, Casino and Meeting Island seemed to be the main spots where the butts were ground out on its surface, perhaps even heavier than on the one in Huakela's hut.
Otherwise, her preternatural vision was giving her no information on him. All attempts to peer at either his aura or his physical appearance beneath his neatly pressed suit caused him to waver and become more indistinct before her eyes. Dorothy had no doubt this was the influence of the masked figure who stood quietly to the ferret's side.
To the right, Jane Early sat in her usual loose shirt and baggy trousers, her tiki-logo ball cap sitting on the table at her side as she slouched in her seat. She'd exchanged a nod of recognition with her duplicate as they'd come in, while Dorothy stopped and stared, recovering her composure after a the barest flicker of shock crossing her face. She trusted Jane with her life, and if she was here, then no matter what side of the table she sat on she felt confident it would come out all right.
The two sides sat across from one another for a long pause, sizing one another up, before the ferret spoke. "Welcome back to the Spontoons, Missus Pearl. I trust your journey on the Palomino Bay was uneventful."
Dorothy's icy eyes flickered across the table at him. "Oh yes. Much less eventful than the circumstances of our boarding, or of our disembarking, for that matter..."
A ghost of a smile stole across the mustelid's face. "Yes, well, I hope to take up as little of your time as possible, ma'am. I just wanted to extend my nation's heartfelt thanks for dealing with this menace, and for delivering such a bounty of information and technology into our hands."
The feline gave a slight nod. "Ah, so I presume the Spontoons will be taking custody of Jormungandr."
The ferret plucked his cigarette from the ashtray, flicking a bit of ash onto a crescent shaped island in the northeast quadrant of the lagoon. "It's being towed to the R.I.N.S. naval base on Moon Island right now, where it will be berthed under joint security while we argue with the Westies and the Sylvanians about who will finally get to keep it. Although as they say, possession is nine tenths of the law."
He took a drag on his cigarette. Dorothy kept her gaze level. "And what about the crew?"
The ferret blew a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke out through his nostrils. "They're bound for Rain Island right now, where they have prison facilities to hold them while the diplomats decide whether they'll be tried for war crimes or for piracy. Either way, the end of a rope is the final destination for a lot of them."
The feline nodded gravely, a sad expression on her face. "I see. I feel sorry for their widows and orphans."
The ferret flicked more ash into the ceramic lagoon of the ashtray, a neutral expression on his face. "They should have thought of that before they made widows and orphans out of the families of seventeen ships' crews."
At this, the masked priestess spoke up. "There are other orphans that are of more direct concern to us, Dorothy Pearl."
The feline looked briefly puzzled, and then nodded in understanding. "You mean the liberated dog slaves who served on the submarine?"
The ferret cocked his head. "Yes and no. The majority of the liberated canines will be taken in as refugees under the auspices of the Spontoon Althing. They are material witness' for the wolves' trials, after all, and also a valuable source of information about the workings of that sub. Once they've been through quarantine, we'll be settling them with host families across the Archipelago. There are a few special cases that we need to consider, and thought you would like to be in the loop on them."
At this point, Cord spoke up. "We refer, of course, to Zoltan, Marta, and Vanya."
The ferret took a drag on his cigarette and gestured with it toward the rabbit doe seated at his side. "Those three have been, or will be in the case of Miss Cook, offered full resident status as part of a deal we've struck with Miss Early here."
Dorothy's brow furrowed as she glanced at the tan-furred doe on her side of the table and then turned questioning eyes toward the identical rabbit seated across from her. "Deal?"
The Jane seated next to the ferret shifted in her seat and met the feline's gaze. "Yeah. Long n' short of it is I'm stayin' here."
The brown-furred tabby's cool demeanor cracked, and her head whipped around to the rabbit beside her as the doe spoke to her double. "So y'all decided, huh?"
The identical rabbit nodded with a grin. "Ayep. We're all set, and I even got 'em t' throw in a li'l house on East Island too."
The Jane next to Dorothy smiled. "Nice! Good goin', darlin'!"
Beside her the tabby's head swiveled back and forth between the duplicates in profound consternation. "But... what... Jane you... but..."
The tan-furred doe at her side laid a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry, darlin'. I'll still be gittin' on the plane back t' th' States with y'all jest like we planned."
She rolled her eyes. "Seriously, though, y'all oughta be used t' th' way I work by now."
A chuckle came from the ferret seated in the shadows across from her. "Just think how we feel, Missus Pearl. This is quite unusual territory for us."
Dorothy relaxed in her chair with a wry expression on her face. "Yeah, I understand now."
She looked over at the Jane next to her. "I was wondering why you weren't more upset about leaving without saying goodbye to Junko."
The rabbit seated across from her winked. "Yeah, well I was never plannin' on doin' that, even back on Nobikini."
She cocked her head at the otter seated across from her. "After conferrin' with Heywood here about it on the trip back, we figgered this would be th' best way t' go about it. He introduced me to his boss here soon as we put into port, and after I demonstrated a few things, we hammered out a deal."
Dorothy gazed at the ferret, who smiled across the table at her wreathed in a spiral of smoke. She cocked one of her delicate eyebrows quizzically. "So what to you get out of this deal?"
He flicked an ash into the ashtray. "It should be obvious, ma'am. With Miss Early a happy resident of our islands, we have a nearly inexhaustible army of highly trained, resourceful individuals ready and willing to spring to our defense at a moment's notice."
The Jane seated next to him winked at Dorothy. "Not that I reckon it'll ever come t' that."
The ferret cast her a glance and took a drag on his cigarette. "Either way, such a thing is well worth a modest house and some expedited paperwork."
The feline looked at him searchingly. "Seems like a bit of a risk as well." She cast a look at Jane. "Is the government of this country really comfortable with a hidden army on its shores? I'm sure Mister Cord here can attest to what Miss Early's capable of when she's displeased with someone."
The ferret gave a shrug. "Well, I suppose it behooves us to stay on her good side, doesn't it?"
He flicked an ash onto the bump representing Meeting Island. "The Althing really doesn't need to trouble itself about the particulars. They've entrusted me with the security of this island and it's my decision what assets I put in place, including ones that might carry some risk. "
Jane cocked a thumb at the ferret and gave the feline a grin. "Me n' th' Chief here had a long talk about it, and I reckon we understand each other purty well. The Spontoons are a purty easy-goin' place, and long as that don't change I ain't got no complaints."
Dorothy smiled warmly across the polished table at her. "Well, I couldn't be happier for you, Jane."
She turned and took the hand of the rabbit sitting beside her. "And I'm also glad I don't have to lose you as a partner."
The tan-furred doe seated next to the ferret grinned and cocked an ear.
"Heck, darlin', if'n y'all are willin', y'all might be up a whole
'nother travellin' compadre."
She turned to the mustelid and gave a nod. "Y'all wanna git Marta in here so we can wrap this up?"
The ferret nodded and waved a hand to Heywood Cord, who quietly rose and headed out of the room. Jane turned her attention back to Dorothy and her duplicate after the otter had departed, closing the door behind him. "So here's th' deal, I got t' talkin' t' Miss Marta while we were sailin' back from th' atoll, and I got t' thinkin' that th' way things are lookin' to shape up with the wolves an' such over the next couple years, it might not be a bad idea t' have somebody around who knows how they think, and speakin' th' lingo ain't a bad thang neither. Plus she's used t' travelin', and she's purty good in a scrap, too. I ran her thru some katas yesterday and she's been trained purty good, all told. Could use some polishin', but that won't be too much of a problem 'cos she lissens good n' seems real eager t' learn."
She nodded at her duplicate, who nodded back with a grin and cracked her knuckles, before she turned her attention back to Dorothy. "And o' course thar's th' fact she can sleep off gittin' a foot o' sharpened steel shoved thru her guts. So I reckon if'n y'all were innerested, y'might like first crack at her."
At this the ferret chimed in. "If you're not interested, we can certainly find use for someone with her unique abilities in our organization. And she wouldn't be without a place to stay. The clan of Kaleia daughter of Kamamela would welcome her to their hearth with open arms."
The feline stroked her chin, casting a glance at the ferret and the masked priestess standing silently behind him. "Interesting... Very interesting. But why just her? What about Zoltan? Back on Nobikini it seemed like those two were inseparable."
The Wise One spoke, and it seemed to Dorothy's eyes that the cloud of smoke from the ferret's cigarette parted at her voice. "That one needs a home, not a purpose. We have found a suitable place for him where he can heal the wounds in his soul."
As Dorothy pondered this, the door opened with a soft click and the dark-suited otter stepped back into the room with Marta in tow. The silvery-furred canine was immaculately groomed, her close-cropped fur and hair glossy in the dim light, and clad in a simple sea-blue and starched-white cotton dress that flattered her athletic figure. She gave a curtsey as the tabby turned to face her, and raised her grey eyes to meet the feline's gaze.
Dorothy's ice blue eyes peered intently at the expectant canine, looking past the physical at the silver-furred female's aura. Here was patience and courage built on long suffering, a blooming of compassion tinged with lingering regret, and a strong sense of loyalty waiting to be tapped, leavened with a growing sense of right and wrong. She recognized the same pulsing glow of hope that she had seen in Vanya's spirit, but this hope not only wanted to be free, it wanted to be directed in a positive way.
She came to a decision, spoke earnestly to the female dog as her vision focused once more on the softly illuminated figure standing before her. "So, Marta. You have a choice to make. Do you want to accompany me and Miss Early, or would you rather stay here on Spontoon?"
The silvery canine drew herself up and replied in a clear voice. "I vant to come vith you, if you please, ma'am."
Dorothy's eyes flickered. "And why do you want to come with us, Marta?"
The former slave thought for a moment, then replied. "I vant to make a difference in the vorld, to help innocents and stop those who vould harm them. I have never been given a choice in my life until now. I vant to choose vhat is right. There is much I have done vhen I thought I had no choice that I must make up for."
Dorthy turned and looked at the Jane beside her. "What do you think, Jane?"
The rabbit doe jerked a thumb at her duplicate across the table with a smirk. "I agree with her."
The feline nodded in satisfaction and stood, extending her hand to Marta with a warm smile. "Well then all I can say is, we're glad you can join us... partner."
A bright smile blossomed across the silver furred canine's face, as her grey eyes lit up with joy. She hastily composed herself, taking Dorothy's hand in her own and making a short bow. "Thank you, ma'am. I vill try my best to live up to the honor."
The feline gave her hand a squeeze and released it, turning to face the
quartet of figures at the head of the table, as the Jane at her side
stepped up to shake Marta's hand as well. The brown-furred tabby's eyes
glittered in the twilight shade of the chamber. "Well, ladies and
gentlemen, if that's the last bit of business you have with us, we
should really be going. The Pan Orient Clipper is due to take off from Eastern Island at two forty seven, and I think I'd like to try to get a window seat."
She turned and gave the seated Jane a wink. The tan furred doe standing next to Dorothy turned to face Marta. "Y'all ready to travel, darlin'?"
The canine bobbed her head. "Yes, ma'am. My bag is packed and ready."
At a nod from the ferret, Heywood Cord stood and crossed to the door, holding it open expectantly as Jane rose and walked around the table to Dorothy, Marta, and her duplicate, who she proceeded to hug, shake hands, and bump fists with respectively.
She gave Dorothy a wink, a catch in her voice belying her cheerful manner. "Good luck n' keep safe, darlin'. If y'all ever end up out here look me up."
The feline glanced at her double and back to her and smiled. "I guess I'll see you around, Jane."
With that, she turned to the ferret and the masked Wise One, giving them a brief nod, then paused to shake the otter's webbed hand. "Take care of yourself, Mister Cord."
Heywood gave her a broad smile and bowed his head in return. "Ol' Haheka, he'll do okay long as da fish bite on his hook and not on him."
Dorothy gave him a smile, as her eyes flickered beneath the brim of her hat, and headed out the door.
Jane stepped up to him and took his proffered hand. "I dunno, darlin', thars a few critters out thar ain't too bad t'git bit by. Mermaids, fer example."
The otter shot a look at the duplicate Jane with a wry expression. "I was under the impression that you'd caught one of the last specimens of that rare and beautiful breed, Miss Early."
The rabbit cocked an ear and gave him a wink. "I know thar's a couple of 'em out on Pipikaula that might like t' tug at yer rod, if'n y'all was t' drop a line out thar."
The otter blushed and glanced nervously over his shoulder at his superior. "Not in front of Mister..."
He straightened his tie and cleared his throat, giving her a wry expression. "All right, you win. No more fishing metaphors, ever..."
The rabbit chuckled. "Shucks, darlin'. That's nothin'. Jest y'all wait 'til I start talkin' baseball..."
She gave him a wide smile, flicking the tip of her pink tongue off the lower edge of her chisel incisors, then went into the hall to join her waiting feline companion with a saucy backward glance.
Marta stepped up to Cord and met his gaze for a moment, before surging forward and throwing her arms around his muscular torso, hugging him tightly, as he looked down at her in shock, completely flustered. She disengaged and planted a kiss on his cheek, then followed her new cohorts as they headed off to collect their luggage from the security office.
Heywood Cord smoothed down the front of his jacked and shot his cuffs, leaning out to watch the trio of females recede down the polished hallway. He gave a brief shake of his head, a smile on his face, and went back inside, closing the door behind him.
A middle-aged female dog with mottled white-and-brown fur and long, drooping ears labored over the sturdy log, pounding away at chopped sections of the purplish tubers with a stout wooden pestle. Flecks of starch speckled the bright floral pattern of her sleeveless muumuu, as sweat slicked down the fur of her shoulders. Her tail drooped behind her as her pounding became slower and slower, until she stopped, leaning heavily on the pestle. Her stern features clouded over, and she bent forward with a sob, her wrinkled forehead coming to rest on the rounded end of the implement. Her lip began to quiver as tears squeezed out from the corners of her eyes and dripped down into the faintly purple mash below. She sagged to her knees, burying her grey muzzled face in her trembling hands and letting the wooden log clatter onto it's side as nearby chickens scattered, clucking indignantly.
A rustling of grass by the entry of the palm wood fence came to her ears, followed closely by a gentle hand on her shoulder as someone knelt beside her and spoke to her in a soft, soothing voice. "<Lakea daughter of Lakala, sympathy and the kindness of sisters I bring thee. Why do you weep?>"
The canine looked up to see a pair of golden eyes regarding her tenderly in a calico furred face, and she turned to embrace her visitor. "< O Honored Sister… M-my son lies ill in my longhouse, his body craving the outlander's poisons. I am so tired, and it is all from bearing a heavy heart. Would a thousand sharp spears pierce me that one moment of my child's suffering be soothed, would the gods smite my proud head with their sacred lightning that I looked away when I could have chased this serpent from him before it struck.>"
The visitor stroked the canine's heaving back. "<Why do you not call your daughters to thy hearth to aid thee, Lakea daughter of Lakala? Do they not love thee? Would they not bear up their only brother while he is a burden to thee?>"
The older female sobbed, shaking her head. "<Would the daughters I drove away with scorn and harsh words cleave to the brother they knew was a fool when I would not see it. I would not call them from their hearths and children now.>"
The grass-clad priestess sadly shook her head. "<Why did you not ask for the Wise Ones' help, Lakea daughter of Lakala? We your sisters in the spirit would cleave to thee, no matter how harsh your past chidings.> "
The she-dog blinked at her feline visitor, and broke down again, cradling her head on the edge of her mortar. "<I have piled shame upon pride upon shame, Great Mother. I have allowed the weight of my cares to crush me when there are a thousand places to set them down. Does my foolishness know an end, or is it like the tides of the ocean, ever rolling in to wash away my reason?>"
The priestess nodded gravely. "<You are not the kind to merely cast your burdens upon others, Lakea daughter of Lakala. Yes, it is pride, but it is strength as well. That is why I bring you a new burden, one that will perhaps balance the other and make it easy for you to bear.>"
The mottled canine looked up at her in puzzlement, her eyes red rimmed and moist. "<Another burden. What do you mean, Great Mother?>"
At that, the golden-eyed feline turned and beckoned to someone beyond the compound gate. A moment later, a huge brute of a canine loomed between the palm log posts, the top of his closely-shorn head nearly touching the crossbeam. He stood with a meek, hopeful expression on his blunt face, his eyes downcast.
Lakea rose to her feet approached him, her jaw dropped in disbelief. "<Who is this who blocks my gate like a boulder in the hills blocks the hunting paths? If he is my burden I fear I cannot hope to lift him anymore than I could lift the great mountain of Main Island.>"
A smile flitted across the visitor's face. "<It is not his body that needs lifted, Lakea daughter of Lakala, it is his heart. Look upon it now with the eyes of the spirits.>"
The mottled female's eyes narrowed as she looked hard at the hulking dog before her. Her hand rose to her muzzle with a gasp as she stepped up to him and laid gentle fingers upon the center of his broad chest. "<Oh... The hurt is so deep, and burns like fires atop still waters. This poor, poor boy.>"
She turned to the golden-eyed feline with a grave look on her face. "<I could help this one. Were I not borne down by my own son's ills, I would.>"
The feline turned to the towering male and spoke gently to him in Westcommon. "Zoltan. This is Lakea. She said she would help you. Would you care to help her somehow?"
She cocked her head toward the mortar and pestle with a meaningful look.
The huge dog nodded, replying in a low, rumbling voice that both females felt through the pads of their feet. "I would like to help, ma'am."
With that, he stepped into the compound and picked up the heavy wooden pestle in his broad hand, and began to rhythmically pound the taro root into paste in a few powerful, crushing blows. Lakea looked at him in amazement as he scooped the paste into a nearby bowl and threw more chunks of the fibrous tuber into the mortar, then stood and resumed pounding.
The visiting priestess laid her arm across the middle aged canine's shoulders, speaking softly to her. "<He is steadfast, dutiful, and gentle in spirit. When your own son is back on his feet, would not this one help him to walk on a straighter path? How much easier for you to guide the two, your son to wisdom, and this one to peace, when they have one another to lean on?>"
A fragile smile came to Lakea's face as she looked at the visiting Wise One. "<I see the path down which you guide me, O Honored Sister. Very well. I will let my pride draw me out one more time, and not shy from this challenge. The outlanders have a strange saying of fighting fire with more fire. I will fight troubles with my son by bringing in another troubled son to sit at my hearth. May the gods give their blessings to this endeavor or at least find great laughter in it.>"
The golden-eyed feline smiled gently and planted a kiss on the mottled canine's cheek. "<You walk back to wisdom, Lakea daughter of Lakala. Now I must depart, but do not forget, we your sisters will come at the slightest call.>"
The canine Wise One bowed her head and took the feline's hands in her own, kissing them. "<Go your way in peace, O Honored Sister, and return to my hearth as a welcomed friend whenever you choose to do so. I shall welcome this child to his place there, and may the gods grant he prosper.>"
With a smile and a rustling of her grass skirt and cape, the priestess bowed and turned to leave, glancing over her shoulder as Lakea stepped up behind her new charge and laid a gentle hand on his broad back, leaning in to speak softly to him.
A moment later, the feline was gone, as a breeze whispered between the palm logs framing the gate.
The trio stopped short as a piercing whistle sounded out, accompanied by a familiar voice. "YO GALS! OVER HERE!"
They turned, to see two rabbit does standing by one of the dock pilings. One was tan- furred and muscular, dressed in a grass-green cotton sun-dress and a broad-brimmed straw hat, waving emphatically towards them. At her side, a white-furred doe stood smiling and waving much more demurely, the colorful Spontoonie sarong adorning her curvaceous frame offset by a large tropical orchid in her ink-black hair. Behind them, a portly, shabby-furred rabbit in a floral-print shirt and a white peaked cap smiled at them over the wheel of his boat.
With a smile at her two companions, Dorothy led them over. She grinned at the athletic doe as they approached. "Didn't I just say goodbye to you, Jane?"
The rabbit chuckled as she winked at her duplicate. "Well, goodbyes don't tend t' stick fer long with me. Anyhow, it was Junko here who wanted t' say sayonara."
At the sound of her name, the usagi stepped forward and gave the feline a bow. "Hai! Sayonara and aloha, Dorothy sama."
She stepped up and kissed the tabby lightly on her cheek, then turned and gave a bow to Marta, who returned it hesitantly.
With that, the graceful doe turned to the Jane that was accompanying them and slipped her hands around the startled adventuress' waist, pulling her into a long, tender kiss. The tan furred rabbit's duffel bag thudded on the ground at their feet as she wrapped her arms around the former pearl-diver's lithe body in turn.
When they finally parted, Jane's face was wet with tears. She turned toward her duplicate and jabbed a finger toward her, her teeth gritted fiercely as her voice came low and rough. "Y'all had better write, or I will personally come back out here n' kick yer everlovin' kiester."
As Junko stepped back to the other Jane's side and slipped her arm around her waist, the duplicate rabbit smiled warmly at her departing double. "Like y'all need an excuse t' come back. Mi casa es su casa, anytime, darlin'."
Jane sniffled and picked up her duffel bag, grudgingly reaching out to bump fists with her duplicate. "Yeah, well... that goes without sayin'."
She let out a sigh and turned to Dorothy and Marta. "Okay gals, lets git t' steppin' fore I change my mind."
She pulled her gaze away and faced forward, toward the easternmost
island of the busy archipelago, where a plane waited to carry her and
her companions to their next adventure, as the breeze fluttered through
her dark hair and kissed her faintly-striped cheek.
...but also read the Epilogue