Luck of the Dragon: Hedging Bets© 2011 by Walter Reimer
(The Chang Brothers courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
Hao woke up and reminded himself where he was.
He was in bed, in his usual room at the Grand on Spontoon.
The red panda closed his eyes again, then opened them as an expression of mixed shock and joy came across his muzzle.
He was getting married today.
A glance at the small clock on the bedside table, and he rolled over.
He was getting married that afternoon, and that meant he had a bit of time to sleep in.
“Try harder, Xiu.” Shin ran the furbrush over the younger woman’s tail one more time. “Calm down. You’re shaking like a hula dancer on Nootnops Blue.”
“Well,” Xiu said, studiously ignoring the giggles from her three school friends, “I’m nervous, Shin.” She picked up a mirror and studied her reflection for perhaps the sixth time.
One of her chums, a slightly plump hound named Beatrice, giggled. “You’re scared.”
She barely caught the thrown mirror in time. “Yes, I’m scared,” Xiu snarled. “Wait until you get married, Bea – and not a word out of either of you two,” she said to her other two friends, a feline named Henrietta and a taller, thinner canine whose name was Wilhelmine but insisted on being called Billie.
All of them were in their underwear, getting the bride ready taking precedence over their own costumes. Following Chinese convention, their dresses were a deep red for good luck.
White was for funerals.
Shin stepped back from Xiu and looked at her critically. “You look great. Let’s get dressed – they’ll be here soon.” The three girls headed to go and put their dresses on, but as Xiu started to leave the older femme raised a paw. “You stay right there. I’ll get your dress and help you with it.”
“All right. Thank you, Shin.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” She cocked an eye at Xiu’s shaking paws. “You want something to calm you down?”
“I told you I don’t like whisky.”
“And you’re a bit too young to drink anyway. Hmm.” Shin snapped her fingers. “Stand right there.” She stepped into the kitchen and returned after a moment with a teacup. “Here. Drink this slowly.”
“What is it?” Xiu asked, sniffing at the pale yellow liquid.
“Pineapple brandy. The locals here make it. Small sips.” Shin busied herself with getting Xiu’s gown ready as the younger woman sniffed again at the liqueur, then sipped.
The first taste of it made her gasp. “It’s strong.”
“So take it easy. It’ll calm you down a bit,” Shin said as she started to lay out the custom-fitted red silk gown that Xiu was to wear.
“I look ridiculous.”
“Heh. I said the same thing.”
“All right. Is this stupid hat on straight?”
“You look fine. Come on, the others are waiting.”
To the rattle and snap of firecrackers and an atonal din of struck gongs, the groom’s party advanced up the path at the Maha Kahuna toward the bungalow. Waiting to meet them were the bride’s mother and friends, waiting to fulfill their traditional role.
Haggling ensued in a good-natured fashion over Xiu’s dowry and what presents the groom’s family were offering in exchange for the bride. Presently agreement was reached and a signal was given, and bearers brought forward a sedan chair.
“Okay,” Shin said as she let the curtain fall. “They’re ready for you. You okay?”
Xiu was dressed in red silk, with gold embroidered dragons. Her waist-length curly headfur had been brushed and braided into two long plaits that had been coiled atop her head and shoulders, and she was wearing an elaborate headdress and a heavy red silk veil. She nodded. “Are you going to be able to carry me? This dress must weigh thirty pounds.”
Shin laughed. “If I can’t, don’t you dare tell the Tutors – they’ll have me carrying engine blocks up Mount Kiribatori.” Dressed in a simple red silk dress Shin crouched. Xiu climbed onto Shin’s back. “Not as heavy as I thought. Ready?”
She could hear Xiu gulp. “O-okay.”
Hao tried to avoid fidgeting.
He stood, dressed in dark blue with a hat festooned with cypress leaves on his head, beside the sedan chair as he waited for Xiu to come out. A small boy, one of Lu Ting’s grandsons, stood beside him, the little giant panda occasionally chewing on one of the cuffs of his own ceremonial robe.
Gongs sounded and Shin appeared around the corner, carrying Xiu on her back. The ritual, and the small mirror on the back of the sedan chair, was designed to prevent evil influences from reaching the bride. Shin helped Xiu into the sedan chair and as the heavy cover was replaced said to Hao, “You look good, little brother.”
“Thanks. Need a smoke, though.” His clipped tone told Shin that her brother was nervous.
“Later, Hao.” Shin went to stand near Fang as gongs started playing and the sedan chair was lifted.
Because the cove where they were to be married was more than a mile away and inaccessible by road, water taxis had been engaged. Most of the guests were already there and waiting. The groom’s party boarded, Xiu was helped into another fitted out with reed screens to conceal her, and the Lion Dancers and the now-empty sedan chair boarded a third.
When the boat he was in grounded on the beach, Hao disembarked and helped Lu Ting’s grandson onto the sand. Straightening, he saw his parents and Hu Renmin watching. Eddie the Barber was watching interestedly, while Broca managed to look bored. A short distance away, Barghouti stood and chain-smoked, looking around nervously.
Shin muttered about ruining her dress as she waded to the side of Xiu’s boat, taking her on her back again and carrying her to the sedan chair. The procession started again, up the beach to a small shrine that had been specially erected with the permission of the land’s owner.
Hao thought all the tradition was remarkably silly, but when Hu Renmin and his wife accepted the cups of tea offered them, it all became very much worth it.
Xiu straightened and lifted her veil, her hazel eyes meeting his gaze as she smiled at him.
She then bowed, and the celebration started.
Ni Hao & Xiu's wedding - (Larger file here - 1.4 MBytes)
Art collaboration by Puddle Boots & Brokkoli
After a brief stop to change out of their ceremonial finery, the two families and the other members of the wedding party gathered at the Great Pagoda for dinner. The Changs had set aside the main floor of the restaurant, as the party was too large for the more exclusive top floor.
A hired band was playing a variety of popular songs as dish after dish was presented and everyone ate their fill. The younger set started fidgeting, waiting for the dancing to start, when several firecrackers were set off to herald the arrival of the cake.
The cake was three tiers high, the bottom layer more than a foot and a half across and decorated with symbols for good luck, prosperity and a happy family. Hao and Xiu cut the cake, to general applause.
Applause that swiftly died as the double doors to the dining room opened.
An antlered shape that was all too familiar to many in the room limped in, supporting himself with a silver-headed cane. He was dressed in a well-pressed light gray suit, and the battered fedora he affected was held in his free paw.
Shin growled and clenched her fists, her knuckles cracking.
Fang forestalled her from any action by shaking his head.
Hei was whispering to Renmin behind his paw. The bride’s father was nodding.
Melina Broca was maintaining a studiedly nonchalant pose, but she didn’t take her eyes off Stagg.
Barghouti hid behind a pillar.
Hao had been standing beside Xiu, who had sat down. The couple watched as the whitetail limped straight toward them.
And politely bowed over his cane.
He straightened and met Hao’s eyes.
Then he bowed again, toward Xiu.
“Mrs. Ni. I wish you both a long and happy life together,” he said in a quiet, dry voice.
He then turned, nodded toward Ni Hei, and walked out. As the doors closed, many people breathed sighs of relief and the band struck up the popular romantic song from Seathl, The Northern Lights are in Your Eyes.
Hao shook himself and turned to look down at Xiu. “Care to dance?” he asked.
“Love to,” she fairly purred as she stood. They moved out onto the floor and started dancing, several of the other young couples following suit.
Xiu pressed close to Hao. “Who was that?”
“Inspector Stagg. Police,” Hao whispered, trying hard not to snarl. “He had a lot of nerve, coming in here alone.”
“I thought it was rather sweet – “
“Father goes on about face,” Hao said, “and I suppose there’s something to a reputation, but–“
“Hey.” He blinked at the interruption and she ran her paws over his cheekruffs. “Never mind him, Love. This is our day.”
“But – “
Whatever he might have said was muffled by her kiss, and those watching them applauded.
“Hao, could you unzip me, please?” Xiu asked as they walked into Hao’s rooms at the Grand. The wedding reception had gone on until well past midnight, and Peng-wum and Shin had seen the couple to their rooms.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Shin teased as Hao shut and locked the door in her face.
“I’m going to freshen up a bit,” Xiu said after her dress had been unfastened. “Be right out,” and she stepped into the bedroom.
“Okay,” and Hao made sure the curtains were closed before taking off his suit jacket and tie. He paused to study the simple gold band on his left paw. It hadn’t been traditional, but his wife (his wife!) had insisted.
He rather liked the sound of that.
The bedroom door opened, and he turned.
His mouth went dry.
Xiu stood framed in the doorway. She was standing in a classic sculptor’s pose, back straight, one leg slightly advanced. Her paws were behind her back, and her hair fell in a loose curly cascade to her waist.
She was wearing only a garter belt and hose, in a light green color that seemed, somehow, to contrast well with her fur.
“Like it?” she asked in a soft voice.
He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.
Hao walked up to his wife, and without a word swept her up in his arms. She laughed at the look on his face as he carried her into the bedroom.
The bedroom door slammed shut, propelled by his foot.