Luck of the Dragon: House Rules© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Rosie Baumgartner courtesy of M. Mitch Marmel, Inspector Stagg courtesy of E.O. Costello, and Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Struck dumb with surprise, Rosie could only stare at the red panda. What’s that little mamser up to? she wondered.
Peng-wum gaped. Father? he thought.
Hao glared angrily. What the hell’s Father doing, kowtowing to that longhorned barbarian? he asked himself.
Franklin Stagg shifted uneasily on his hooves, almost painfully aware that some of the other diners were turning to watch the tableau. He leaned over his cane and said, “Er . . . Mister Ni?”
Still looking down at the floor, Ni Hei said quietly, “Inspector, I wish to apologize most sincerely for causing you any distress. Had I known beforepaw that the information I sent you would do what it did, I would have sent it elsewhere. I beg your forgiveness.”
Rosie rolled her eyes heavenward. “Oh, please . . . “ she muttered.
Stagg blinked. “Um . . .” He blushed suddenly and said, “Good heavens. Mr. Ni, this is entirely unnecessary. Your point is made. Um . . . will you have a seat?"
“Will you accept my apology, sir?”
The whitetail buck shuffled his hooves, growing nervous as people started to stare. “If it will get you off the floor and into a chair, yes.”
The red panda looked up at him, then slowly got to his feet. He reached over to an unoccupied table, pulled a chair over and sat down. A glance at his sons and they seemed to relax a little. “Thank you, Inspector,” Hei said. He dusted at the knees of his trousers with his paws for a moment, as if taking the time to collect his thoughts. He glanced up at the buck and said, “You don’t believe my apology is genuine?”
“No, we don’t,” Rosie growled, keeping part of her attention on the red panda’s sons. They returned her suspicious glare impassively.
“Miss Baumgartner,” Stagg admonished quietly. He sat down at his place and regarded Hei closely. “You’ll forgive me, Mr. Ni, if I admit to some skepticism. After all, you do hail from Krupmark Island.”
“Not originally, Inspector, as I’m sure my dossier at the Interior Ministry can tell you,” the man said, matching Stagg’s tone. “Neither I nor any member of my family were born there.”
“Then how’d you get there? Get run out of China?” asked Rosie.
A brief shadow flickered across Ni Hei’s face as his eyes went distant. “My family was wiped out, massacred while I and my wife and children were here on holiday. I am certain that you can sympathize with that, Inspector, if what I know of your past is true.”
“It is, and you have my sympathies.” Stagg’s expression briefly looked drawn and haunted.
“We applied for asylum here, but the Althing refused. Krupmark was very much a last resort.” Hei sighed. “You and I have a number of things in common, Inspector.”
Stagg’s ears twitched as Rosie started coughing. “I doubt that.”
“If you look at it, it’s the truth,” the red panda countered. “We have both been driven from our homes and forced to begin new lives in strange places.”
“I did not turn to crime.”
Hei smiled. “What was the phrase I heard once in Illinois? ‘There, but for the grace of God,’ I think it was. Inspector, one of the great truths of life is that it has to adapt or die. Were our situations reversed, sir, you might find yourself on Krupmark.”
The buck let the last comment pass, but Rosie looked startled. “Yes,” Stagg conceded, “and I’ve seen how well your children have adapted.”
“I apologize for bringing up such a painful subject, Inspector. I am proud of my children as a good father must be, although I have had words with them at times.” He turned to glare at his sons. “You must realize that they are a constant trial for me and their mother.”
“So why come here?”
“My oldest son needs an office here, so he will not be kept too long from his own family,” and here the red panda’s expression grew somewhat wistful. “I have come from visiting my grandson, and I know that he will be raised as a Spontoon citizen, with a more civilized set of values.” He nodded. “Yes, Inspector – I’ve given up on finding a quiet place to retire in peace. It will be up to my grandson to restore my family’s reputation for integrity.”
“I must admit you’re not at all how your dossier describes you, Mr. Ni,” Stagg remarked, “but I recall your daughter telling me something about 'police not existing were it not for criminals'.”
Hei chuckled. “Shin’s quite a pawful, and indeed I did tell her that. After all, isn’t it true? If we were all saints, would we need laws?”
“But none of us are saints.”
“Quite true, and you are to be complimented on doing such a thankless job for so long, Inspector.” The red panda consulted his pocket watch and stood. “I regret I’ve taken far too much of your time, sir. Again, please accept my apologies for your illness last January.” He offered a paw.
Stagg took it and the two furs shook paws. Hei bowed to Rosie, who looked daggers at him, and as he left the restaurant his two sons fell in behind him.
The cheetah watched them leave, and as the gate closed with a clang she hissed, “Why, the nerve of that – “
“Yes, it was rather brazen of him,” Stagg said. “He’s given me a great deal to think about, though.” He looked thoughtful. “One must remember that his ilk were engaged in sophisticated court intrigue at roughly the time my ancestors were romping half-naked in the forests with bow and arrow.” He smiled at Rosie, who seemed to like the mental image. “Yes?”
“Which half?” she asked innocently.
He chuckled at that, and winked at her. “Therefore, we must assume that Mr. Ni has some angle that he is playing. What, we can only wait and see.”
As soon as they entered Hei’s room at the Grand Hao couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Father,” he grated, “what was that all about – “ He broke off as his older brother started to chuckle. “What’s so funny? Father just degraded himself to that, that barbarian, and all you can do is laugh about it?”
Hei laughed and put a paw on his youngest son’s shoulder. “Hao, my son,” he said, “sometimes you give me hope that you are still innocent.”
“You honestly think I meant that apology?” and Hei waved his sons to chairs as he continued, “One of the best ways to gain face is to confront your enemy. It shows that you respect him. If Stagg hadn’t accepted it, he might have lost face. He didn’t, so we both gain from it.”
“Surely that wasn’t all, Father,” Peng-wum said.
“Of course not,” Hei said. “You may have heard me say on several occasions that everyone has a price. It’s only a matter of finding the currency.”
Hao blinked and ran a paw over his muzzle before saying, “And you’ve found what could buy Stagg?”
Hei’s smile was cryptic.
“I may have.”
The sun was warm, but the angle threw its radiance directly into Shin’s eyes as she jammed herself even further into the cleft in the rocks. She paused while she assessed her location and the remaining route to the top of the hill. The left? No; the cleft petered out too soon, and only Tatiana was limber enough to get up that way. The right-paw path was the only other way up, so she jammed her aching paws into the cleft and started hauling her way up the slick, moss and lichen-strewn rock face.
Rock climbing at Songmark was strenuous, and not a little harrowing.
And it was even worse when the climber was not using any ropes.
Liberty was perhaps ten feet behind her, with Brigit and Tatiana higher up, almost at the top as their tutor for the day watched from below.
Focus, damn you, the red panda reminded herself as her booted foot slipped on a mossy stone. She shook her head to get her headfur out of her eyes and devoted all of her attention to the task at hand.
One thing at a time, when you held your life in your paws.
Finally she made it to the top, accepting a helping paw from Brigit as she pulled herself onto the grass at the base of Radio LONO’s transmission tower. Her fur was grimy and grass-stained and she lay panting for several seconds before twisting and stretching prone over the lip of the scarp to look for Liberty.
A canine paw waved in response; good, she was only a few feet behind her, and Shin reached to grab at the waving paw. After missing on the first few attempts, the red panda waited for the half-coyote to get closer before helping the New Haven girl up. For a minute or so, they all lay on the grass, breathing hard.
“Well done, girls,” Miss Blande said briskly. “Now, once up and down the tower, and we’ll head back for lunch.”
There was no use arguing; the four members of Red Dorm got to their feet, flexing their paws and stretching to loosen muscles that had tightened after their rock climbing, and jogged to the metal framework of the aerial.
‘Heading back’ for lunch entailed a run all the way around Eastern Island before returning to Songmark, all four girls looking forward to showers.
They stopped short of the stairs and their tails drooped as Miss Blande said, “All of you, my office. Now.” The four followed their tutor into her office and she closed the door behind them.
To their surprise, Miss Devinski was in the room as well. “Girls,” the Labrador said, “You’re aware that Shin is working hard for a weekend pass. Miss Blande and I want to offer all four of you the same weekend off.”
Four pairs of ears perked straight up as Miss Devinski continued, “The object of Songmark - if you haven’t figured it out already - is not to set impossible goals, but merely extremely difficult ones. So, your assignment is to produce, by Saturday morning, a set of four forged passes.”
Shin blinked and the others all looked at her. The Chinese girl had access to expert forgers, surely; what the Tutors must have meant was that they had to do the job themselves.
“Excuse me, Miss Devinski,” Liberty asked. She was the leader of the dorm for the day. “How exact should the copies be?”
“Good question,” the canine said. “As exact as you can make them – right down to my signature. And,” she added, “they must pass a close inspection. If they do, then you have the weekend off and will return to class on Monday morning. If not, your dorm will be assigned kitchen duty throughout the weekend. Is that clear enough?”
Liberty nodded. “Then you are dismissed,” Devinski said, and the four young women left the office to shower and get their lunch.
As soon as the door closed Blande turned to Devinski. “That’s an interesting task for them.”
“I know,” the Labrador chuckled. “It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.”
Shin was busily scrubbing the last of the grass stains and grime from her tail when Liberty asked, “How are we going to do this?”
“It’s tricky,” the Chinese girl replied, “but we have permission – and only four days to do the job, on top of all our regular class work.” She grinned as she rinsed out her tailfur for the last time. “We’ll have to get to work on it today, starting with a good plan.”