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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

Chapter 160

Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck
© 2009 by Walter Reimer

Chapter One-hundred-sixty

        “I was thinking,” Hao said at breakfast the next day.  Xiu looked away from her newspaper and raised a questioning eyebrow, and he said, “You said you didn’t know how to shoot.”
        She nodded, glancing at her parents.  Renmin sat back and said, “Are you proposing to teach her, Hao?”
        “Yes, sir.”
        The older red panda gave him a calculating look.  “I can arrange something, I think.”
        Xiu said, “I’d really like Hao to teach me, Father.  If I go to live on Krupmark, he tells me that I’ll need to know how to shoot.”
        Qing raised a brow at that, something that Hao noted. 
        “I’ll do whatever I can to keep her safe, of course,” he said (perhaps a bit too hastily), “but she really needs to know how to defend herself.”  At her look he added, “With something other than a sword.”
        They all laughed as Xiu stuck her tongue out at him.
        “I agree,” her father said.  “Take today and relax, you two.  While I’m at the office I’ll make a few calls.”
        “Dear,” Qing said, “you also must call the astrologer.”
        “Quite right, my dear.  We have to find the most propitious date for these two lovebirds to get married,” and he smiled as the two younger red pandas blushed.  “Meanwhile you could both practice your swordplay.  It will help you both concentrate, and I hear you need the practice, Hao.”
        Now it was his turn to blush as the others laughed.
        Around lunchtime Qing looked out toward the swimming pool as the sound of wood striking wood echoed through the open windows.
        Xiu, wearing a pair of shorts and a blouse, was facing off against Hao with a broomstick in her paws.  Hao, dressed only in a pair of shorts, was similarly armed and both of them were dueling.
        There was a sudden flurry, followed by a yelp and a splash.
        “That . . . was fun,” Hao spluttered as he surfaced and wiped water from his eyes.  “Best two out of three?”
        Qing chuckled to herself as she went about her business.


        Later that afternoon Xiu pulled herself up out of the pool and sat on the coping before dragging her sodden headfur back from her face with both paws.  She shook water from her eyes and glared up at her fiancé.  “That was a dirty trick, Hao.”
        “You let your defenses down on the left,” Hao said with a grin.  “Can’t blame me for taking advantage.”
        She crested and growled at him, then got to her feet as he stepped back.  “You could have at least helped me up – some gentleman you are,” she huffed.
        That earned her a smirk.  “And have you pull me into the water again?  Twice was enough.”
        “That’s two smacks I owe you,” she declared as she stood up.
        “We’ll have to be married before you can collect.”
        “Don’t worry, Hao.  I won’t forget.”
        After he had been the first one to end up in the pool, several towels had been set aside.  Hao passed one to Xiu and watched as she dried her headfur off.  As soon as she lowered the towel he kissed her on the tip of her nose.
        She growled, he kissed her again and stood close as she returned the kiss, sighing as they separated.  She held him close and he said quietly, “You know, it’s been a good afternoon.  It feels good to not have to look over my shoulder all the time.”
        “I’m glad you feel safe here,” Xiu said, and with that twisted her hips and shifted her weight, pulling him off his feet and hurling him toward the pool.
        She yelped.
        He hadn’t let go of her yet.
        As they surfaced again, this time laughing, Xiu’s mother called out, “You two need to get dried off and cleaned up.  Dinner will be ready soon, and Renmin called to say that the astrologer will be here tonight.”
        “He will?” Hao asked, and started helping Xiu out of the water.  “I hope it’ll be good news.”

        The astrologer was the same person who had been contracted by the Nis for the arranged marriage, Chu Tse-ming.  He was an elderly giant panda, his thick fur hanging loosely on his frame where it was not contained by the ill-tailored suit he wore.
        Chu had arrived at the house in a car driven by his grandnephew; the others who gathered in the living room included the attorney for the Ni Family’s concerns in Hong Kong, who stood as proxy for Hei and Peng.
        “What?” Hao said in an incredulous tone not five minutes after the introductions and pleasantries had been dispensed with.
        His stunned expression was mirrored by Xiu’s, while her parents looked surprised and concerned.  The attorney didn’t look up from his writing pad, scrawling notes of the conversation.
        “I said, young Ni Hao,” Chu said, his voice thin and sibilant, “that the date you wanted for the wedding is not suitable.”
        “Why the hell not?” Xiu said, promptly blushing at the curse word and twisting the ends of her long headfur in her fingers.  She looked almost about to cry.  “We wanted to have it on my birthday . . . “
        “November ninth is not suitable,” the astrologer said in a definite tone, blinking owlishly through thick-lensed eyeglasses.  “The stars are not properly aligned, and while your horoscopes show that you are both suited to each other, the alignment on the ninth will be askew.  Nothing good will come of the match if you marry on November ninth.”
        Xiu stopped looking about to cry and instead started to look ready to kill.  “Primitive mumbo-jumbo,” she growled.
        “Xiu,” Qing said.
        “No, Mother,” her daughter said flatly.  “I won’t be quiet, not this time.  I agreed to this arranged marriage, but to put it off because the stars aren’t right?  Or because something’s not aligned properly?  Are we living in the Dark Ages or something?”  She stood up and left the room, the door closing just as the others heard a sob.
        Hao stood and turned to the others.  “I’ll go talk to her.”
        He found her out in the back yard, slumped in a deck chair by the pool.  He paused a short distance, thinking for a moment, then lit a cigarette and walked over to her.  “Penny for your thoughts,” he said quietly.
        She started and looked up at him, then gazed moodily at the pool.  “You’d be wasting your money,” she growled. 
        Hao nodded, pulling up another deck chair and sitting beside her.  He smoked for a moment before asking quietly, “Want to hear what I think?”
        Xiu looked at him.  “Sure.”
        “I say we hear him out and put off the wedding.”
        She blinked.  “Of all the things I thought I’d hear you say, that’s the one thing I thought you wouldn’t say,” she said. 
        He shrugged.  “I’m just saying that you play the cards you’re dealt with, and you put up with complications.”  He glanced at the lit end of his Fortuna.  “That’s what life is, from where I sit.”
        It reminded her of where he’d grown up.
        “I just can’t see you, of all people, believing any of that garbage.”
        Again, he shrugged.  “Ever heard of Cranium Island?”
        “Yeah.  Is it anything like the books say it is?  Have you ever been there?”
        “No, I haven’t.  And I don’t want to go anywhere near the place,” he said.  “If half of what they say about the place is true, no one in their right mind would get within ten miles of it.  But,” and he stretched a bit, feeling one of his abused ribs, “there’s always the church on Krupmark.”
        “Tell me about it.”
        “I’ve never been there, either.  Shin sneaked in twice when she was younger, and Father beat her for it – both times.  The people up on top of the hill – well, they do things there, so she told me,” and he gave her a brief summary of what his older sister had seen.
        When he finished, Xiu looked at him wide-eyed.  “Really?”
        “She’s got no reason to lie to family.”  He added, “A couple years ago I – well, I had something happen, too.”
        He stubbed out his cigarette, lit another.  “A guy at school bet me I wouldn’t spend a full night on Sacred Island – “
        “That’s Spontoon, right?”
        “Yeah.  So I went.”  He gave her an odd look.  “I still get nightmares from time to time.  Didn’t win the bet, and paid up without a complaint.”
        She shook her curly headfur and regarded the tip of her tail.  “I can’t believe it – you were scared?
        “Believe it.”  He flicked the still-lit cigarette into the pool and faced her. 
        What he was about to say was hard for him.  He took a deep breath and braced himself.
        “Xiu, I’ve never admitted this to anyone: I’m scared all the time.  Everyone on Krupmark is.  Peng-wum says it’s because we never know what’s coming next, and I believe him.
        “Now, I don’t like this anymore than you do, but it’s just another thing that happens.  You can either walk away from it, or accept it and keep moving.  What do you want to do?”
        Xiu gazed into his eyes, and slowly reached across the small gap between them to hug him.  As he embraced her he felt her start to cry, and he stroked her headfur and back as she slowly recovered.  When they separated she looked into his eyes again and sniffled.
        “Feel better now?”
        She nodded.
        He kissed her.  “Now, let’s go back in and play the cards we’re dealt.”