Luck of the Dragon: House Rules© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The water taxi’s bow paused short of the beach at Pangai as a small crowd of laughing children and curious adults started to gather. They waded into the shallows to help the boat’s passengers out, Nailani wearing a white dress shirt and nothing else, and Peng-wum wearing a pair of trousers. The taxi’s driver yelled at Peng-wum in Spontoonie, and as some of the villagers laughed the blushing red panda gave him nearly double the cost of the fare.
The deck would have to be scrubbed and the boat aired before the driver could take on any more passengers without having to give a long explanation.
A very long explanation.
Nailani’s parents came up to greet their daughter and son-in-law, and smiled as Peng-wum took his son in his paws and kissed him gently. He then greeted his in-laws in quiet Spontoonie, and the group talked about his trip to America. They headed to Peng-wum and Nailani’s longhouse, but paused when they saw someone seated by the entrance.
The woman was an elderly canine, her tan and cream fur oiled and brushed with symbols that everyone immediately recognized. She sat and used the length of wood in her paws to scratch meaningless doodles in the cleared ground.
Not all of the doodles appeared meaningless, though. One set of markings looked suspiciously like a game of tic-tac-toe, with the Xs losing.
Giving the baby to Nailani, Peng-wum bowed in greeting as he wondered what would bring a priestess to the house.
Probably not to welcome him home.
The Wise One got to her feet and looked at Peng-wum for a long moment before saying in Spontoonie, “You have blood on your paws, Peng-wum-son-Hei.” Her tail swept the sand clear of markings and she walked off toward the woods.
“What was that all about?” Nailani asked as Peng-wum watched the priestess disappear. “The blood on the paws, I mean.”
Her husband shrugged and said quietly, “Back in Los Angeles – well, I had to shoot someone.”
“Did you kill them?”
“Hmm.” She nodded once and pointed at the doorway. “Get in there and get your fur oiled. When you’re finished and properly dressed,” she said in tones that allowed for no discussion, “we’re going up to the shrine. You’ll undergo the proper rites to make sure the shade doesn’t follow you here to bother Mikilani.”
Peng-wum looked inside at the oil pot, then at his wife. The oldest son of the Ni Family was a rationalist; he generally believed only what his eyes told him. However, he had lived on or near Spontoon long enough to know that some things defied rational explanations.
He smiled at Nailani.
The relative peace of the late spring afternoon on Krupmark was suddenly shattered by several volleys of gunfire, followed by the random snap of smaller firearms as the Mixtecan successors to Juan the Tramp tried to further consolidate their gains into the lucrative drug trade. Those who had divided the dead jaguar’s spoils between them were still resisting the efforts of Juan Zuniga and his chief enforcer, a perpetually unwashed bull nicknamed ‘Dirty’ Sanchez, to recover what the defrocked priest had lost.
The coati had his own ideas, it seemed, and not even a few well-placed threats from the clique up in Fort Bob were having an effect on them.
Ni Hei barely glanced up at the sound as he and Clarence pored over the latest business news. “Must be those newcomers again,” he muttered.
The English lion nodded. “I expect they’ll be liquidated at some point.”
“I hope so. That lout Sanchez tried to come into the Casino a few nights ago and shoot up the place. The bouncers – were not gentle,” Hei said, looking up with a smile.
Both of them laughed as Peng walked in carrying a tea tray. “You two seem very pleased with yourselves,” she remarked as she set the tray down. She poured a cup for her husband while Clarence waited his turn to pour his own.
“We have reason to be,” Hei said, gesturing at the balance sheet. “Profits are up, which means we’ll be able to afford a few improvements to the house as well as the Casino.” Building materials were scarce and expensive on Krupmark, as was the skilled labor required for repair work. It wasn’t unheard of to have an entire inventory of lumber and hardware go missing overnight – along with the hired laborers.
“That would be nice. The mirror over the bar needs replacing. Are you still working on Shin’s birthday present?”
“Just waiting on a few more things.” He chuckled. “It’ll be a nice surprise – I’ll tell her when I get over to Spontoon.”
“What is this we’re supposed to be watching again?” Liberty asked as the four members of Red Dorm settled into their seats in the darkened theater. They had managed, despite the best efforts of the other second years and Crusader Dorm, to make it through another week without losing any points. The reward was a weekend off, and Tatiana had spied a small notice in the newspaper about a ‘foreign film.’
“It is called Aelita,” the sable replied. “It is a great classic film from Soviet Union. You watch,” she added in a hushed tone as the screen flickered to life.
There was a newsreel and two short subjects to start off the show, of course. The news covered a variety of events taking place in Europe and Asia – nothing that couldn’t be just as easily gleaned from the morning newspapers, but the moving images added a certain depth to the narrative.
One of the short subjects made all four of the girls sit straight up in their seats, and Shin surreptitiously studied Liberty’s reactions.
The subject of the film was Lev Trotsky and how he was coping with his exile in Ciudad de Mixteca. The equine would smile gently in response to questions, give his answer, and return to studying the papers that covered his desk. He repeated his assertion that Iosif Starling would kill him someday, and Shin was glad that she and Brigit were sitting between the New Haven girl and the Russian sable.
Finally the main feature came on, and all four relaxed somewhat.
It was a silent film, with a recorded soundtrack of incidental music, and it purported to show one Soviet working fur’s influence on the class system on the planet Mars. The Queen of Mars, the Aelita of the movie’s title, helped the hero Los overthrow her own father’s tyrannical regime.
All well and good, except that Aelita tried to use the power vacuum thus created to seize power for herself. Shin had to bite her tongue more than once to keep from laughing. Aelita had a good attitude toward power, it seemed, along with an eye to exploit opportunities.
Shin was tempted to point this out, but decided against it. Apart from a few arguments (one in which she had taught the others several new epithets in Mandarin) Red Dorm hadn’t fought each other in nearly two weeks. Shin and the others all knew that the other dorms were laying bets on when the blowup would occur and who would get hurt the most.
Which made Red Dorm’s members all the more determined to avoid active hostilities.
At least until summer vacation, and then where no one could see them.
“Not a bad movie,” Liberty remarked as they walked out of the theater. “It points out that while some emotions are necessary to the Revolution – dedication, for example – sentiment can blind you to the schemes of others.” She glanced at the red panda. “What did you think, Shin?”
The Chinese girl shrugged. “You and Tatiana are far more educated about communism and dialectic,” she replied, which was quite true. She didn’t mind admitting it, because she couldn’t have cared less. “But I thought it was a pretty good movie. The scenery reminded me of those German Expressionist films that were going around two years ago. Really stark, you know?” The others nodded. “Hao likes those kind of films a lot.”
“I didn’ think Hao th’ kind who’d sit through a movie,” Brigit said.
“Oh, if it’s really dark – murders, you know – you couldn’t pry him out of his seat with explosives,” Shin laughed.
The trip back to Eastern island and Songmark was spent quietly, each girl thinking of upcoming classes and spending more time in the air, adding hours to their logbooks.
As they approached the gate Tatiana growled, “Them.”
Red Dorm breathed a collective resigned sigh. A certain third year dorm was waiting to check them in and search them before allowing them onto the school grounds. It had taken a long while before either of the girls had allowed the others to touch them, even so simple a chore as combing the fur on their backs. Shin was used to that by now, as well as to having others setting their paws on her fur (it took an effort to not lash out reflexively). But she knew the others were almost physically ill at the thought of having these girls touching them.
Which was a bit odd, given what she knew of Tatiana’s apparent tastes.
Mercifully it was over quickly, the four remembering the last time they had objected to being searched by Prudence and her group. Once they were safely upstairs in their room, Liberty physically shuddered and went to wash her paws.
Shin went to sit on her bed and stopped. Something wasn’t right . . . the edge of the blanket was folded at one spot.
“Someone’s been in here,” she said, and the words brought all four of them fully alert. Without waiting or asking questions, they started to search.
Several minutes later they compared their findings. None of their belongings had been stolen, and the tell-tale signs that various secret hiding places had been disturbed weren’t present. To add to the results of the search, the door to their room had not been opened.
That left the window, which had been open to let in the warm spring breeze. Tatiana went to examine it, including the fine dust purposely spread over the sill. “Shin, look here.”
The red panda and the others went and looked. Only one person was either brazen or stupid enough to climb into their room.
“That damned squirrel,” Shin breathed. It seemed that Rote had only had enough time for a cursory search of the room. She glared at the open window and resolved to come up with a more effective deterrent.
Preferably something involving poisonous snakes.
“We’ve no time fer getting’ back at ‘em,” Brigit cautioned. “We’ve classes an’ exams ta study fer.” A Songmark exam was extremely rigorous; more than once Shin had complained of her brain being hammered flat after a test. The complaint had usually been followed by a snide remark, which in turn was followed by a fight. Although the final exam for their second year was still almost two months away, it never hurt to plan ahead (in fact, it was expected).
“True,” Shin said, her banded tail snapping from side to side. “But it gives me all summer to think out what to do to her.”
“I’m ready to go,” Hao remarked. He cocked an eye at his brother as they walked to the waiting GH-2. “You okay? You look tired.”
Peng-wum grinned, rubbing a paw against the back of his neck. “Nailani insisted I go through a ritual to keep Lupone’s ghost off my back and away from Mikilani,” he explained, “and then we spent most of the night getting re-acquainted.”
Hao laughed as they ran a preflight check of the Mixtecan seaplane. “You’ll start looking old before your time.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“I’m wondering why he wants to come to Spontoon,” Hao said. “Suppose he wants to retire?”
His older brother shrugged and helped Hao cast off the plane’s mooring lines.
Laden with another cargo destined for Fort Bob, the plane wallowed through the swells until it reached the proper takeoff lane. Peng-wum waved as the twin-engine seaplane lumbered aloft, watched it as it dwindled out of sight, and walked back to the taxi rank to head home.