Luck of the Dragon: Hedging Bets© 2011 by Walter Reimer
Hao drifted awake to feel a gentle fingertip tracing the line of a long-healed knife slash across his chest. His nose told him that it was Xiu.
It still amazed him that she found him attractive, not despite his scars, but because of his scars. She said that it gave him character.
He still wasn’t certain if she was teasing him or not.
Well, he reflected, he’d have plenty of time to find out. He was married to her now, after all.
Peng-wum was right after all.
It was both exhilarating and terrifying.
“Hao?” she whispered softly.
“Xiu?” he replied in the same undertone.
“Was I bothering you?”
He opened his eyes and smiled at the sight of her nestled in the crook of his arm. “No,” he said, “you’re not bothering me. You did wake me up, though.”
“Don’t be.” He glanced at the windows, seeing that the sun was shining through the curtains, then turned back and kissed her. “Good morning, but I think we’re up in time for lunch,” and they both chuckled. “Which means – “
“Room service,” and Hao gently disentangled himself. He put his feet on the floor and moved to stand up, then looked back at Xiu. “You need to let go of my tail.”
“It’s a nice tail.” She was holding the tip of it in front of her muzzle like a fan, looking up at him with her expressive hazel eyes.
“Not as nice as yours.”
She giggled and let him go after taking a deep sniff of his scent. Hao grinned back at her and crossed the room to the phone. He phoned in the order and after hanging up said, “It’ll be up in about half an hour. We might want to get dressed.”
“I thought they didn’t mind nudity here on Spontoon.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing you unclothed all the time,” and the two of them laughed, “but it might bother the tourists in summer.” He opened the closet and took out two robes that bore the hotel’s monogram, and tossed one to her. As he started to put his on he paused and looked down. “What’s this?”
“What?” Xiu was standing, getting into her own robe. She was tying the belt as he bent down and picked up the flat box that had fallen out of her luggage.
She promptly blushed. “Don’t you remember? Stephanie gave me that last summer as a wedding present.”
Hao turned the box over in his paws for a moment.
“Are you going to open it?”
“She gave it to you,” he said in a nervous tone. “You open it.”
Xiu took the box from him, unwrapped it and gently raised the lid. She looked at him as she moved aside a few pages of yellowed newspaper and pulled a broad, flat leather paddle from the box.
“Hmm, here’s a note.” She let the empty box fall to the floor as she read aloud, “For Xiu. Use if he needs to be reminded of his place. Stephanie.” She looked up at him. “Hao?”
Her husband looked nervous, shifting from foot to foot, his tail twitching.
“Hao?” Her expression turned from teasing to concern when she saw a decidedly unhealthy look in his eyes. “Too soon?”
“Okay,” she said, and tossed the paddle into the closet, closing the door firmly. “We won’t even joke about it until you think you’re ready.”
Her husband blinked, nodded and visibly relaxed. “Thank you, Xiu.”
She took him in her arms and kissed him, feeling him tremble. Xiu hated herself briefly for making him so agitated. “No need to thank me, darling. It’s my fault.” She kissed him again and led him away from the closet. “But remember, I did tell you I was going to smack you.”
“You did?” He looked puzzled, then grinned a bit shamefacedly. “Oh yeah, you did. You can add it to my tab.”
“Done.” They chuckled and went into the suite’s drawing room to await lunch.
A sharp knock on the door about an hour after lunch caused the two to look up from their game. Hao was teaching Xiu Revolution Rummy, and paused in his explanation of how one had to build up a properly elitist tumbrel and a properly proletarian Citizen’s Tribunal. “Yes?”
“Constabulary! Open up! You’re under arrest for corrupting a minor!”
Hao almost reached for his shoulder holster, but instead reached for his pack of Fortunas. The voice was deep and gruff, but he recognized it easily. Xiu had also recognized it, and was smothering a laugh in her napkin.
No mistaking it, really.
He stood up and opened the door.
A harsh laugh and his older sister stepped in as Hao closed the door behind her.
She abruptly grabbed her nose. “Good Lord! Did you two go feral last night? It stinks in here!”
Xiu laughed and blushed as Hao sat down and lit a cigarette. “We had the windows open, Shin,” he said, waving the match out. Not exactly true, and she very likely knew it.
“Seems to me that it didn’t help,” and the older red panda femme waved her paws to clear the air. “What’s this?” she asked, catching sight of the cards on the table. “Revolution Rummy?”
“Hao’s teaching me.”
“You might actually beat him. That’s the sorriest-looking tumbrel I’ve seen, Hao. Honestly, two tens and a jack?” She gave her new sister-in-law a hug as she said, “I see he let you get up and get dressed, Sister.”
“What makes you think it wasn’t the other way around?” Xiu asked with an arch look. She winked at her husband, who laughed.
“Well, that could be, now that I think of it,” Shin said. “I didn’t come in here to bother you two – “
“Too late,” Hao said, and ducked as she slapped at him.
“ – But you two are invited downstairs for dinner. We’re all meeting up in your parents’ room in two hours.” Shin wrinkled her nose. “I’m going to get out of here before the musks get in my fur and I have to take another bath.” She ducked a thrown poker chip and stuck her tongue out at Hao. “Remember, kids, two hours.”
She left as a fistful of chips struck the closing door.
“About time you two made an appearance,” Hu Renmin said as his daughter and her husband entered the room. The older red panda closed the door behind them as he joked, “Your mother and I were wondering if we should send out search parties.”
“Make sure they’re armed, first,” Ni Hei laughed as he wiped his glasses with a pawkerchief.
“Pop,” Hao said, knowing that the title irritated his father. He was rewarded for this by a twitch of his father’s banded tail and he suppressed a grin. “I’m surprised you and Mother haven’t gone home yet.”
“We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning,” Hei replied. “You two will be starting your honeymoon shortly?”
“Honeymoon?” Xiu asked, looking at her husband. “Are we going on a honeymoon?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise, and it is traditional,” Hao said, and he grinned as she giggled. “I thought first of you and me going to Hawaii – “
“That’d be nice.”
“ – But then I thought of San Francisco.” Xiu nodded and slipped her arm around her mate’s waist as he added, “Both spots have Americans there.” He sounded almost apologetic.
His father glanced at Renmin as the other man chuckled around his cigarette holder. “After a while, Hao, you stop noticing them. They sort of blend into the landscape.”
“You’ve been to America, sir?”
Renmin nodded and tipped a bit of ash into an ashtray. “Xiu was ten at the time,” he explained. “I had to go and make some contacts for the business. Fortunately air travel’s improving – it seemed to take months to get there by ship.”
“It did take months, dear,” Qing said to her mate. “You missed Xiu’s eleventh birthday, remember.”
“And she reminded me of that fact the instant I stepped off the liner,” the red panda said ruefully. “So, you two are going to San Francisco?”
“We leave in two days, according to the tickets,” Hao replied.
“Your father and I will be leaving tomorrow,” Qing said, looking at Xiu as she spoke.
The abrupt statement brought Xiu up short with the realization that she wasn’t a little girl anymore.
It took her a moment to fight back the sting of tears behind her eyes.
She managed it without anyone noticing (or if they did, they were too polite to point it out) and heard Peng ask, “Have you two given any thought to where you’ll live when you get back?”
Hao looked from his mother to Xiu. “Well, I know you’d like to live on Krupmark – “
“It seems like an exciting place.”
He chuckled. “Pretty exciting, yes. But I don’t think it’s really safe, and – sorry, Mother, Father, but it’s true – it’s no place to raise kids.”
He’d been rehearsing what he’d said in his mind for several days.
Xiu looked surprised and Shin giggled.
“You two already planning a family?” Nailani asked with a placid smile. Her own second pregnancy was just starting to show.
“No, not yet,” Xiu replied, and gave Hao a questioning look.
Her husband smiled at her. “I was going to discuss it with you while we were on our honeymoon, but since we’re on the subject I’ve been thinking.”
“So where do you think?”
He kissed her cheek before saying, “I had thought of setting up here, on Spontoon.”
Hei looked at his youngest son over the tops of his glasses. “I doubt they’d allow you to buy a house and settle down here, Hao.”
“I know that, Father, but why can’t we stay here, at the Grand? I mean, we own the place – “
“You do?” Xiu asked.
“Not so you’d notice,” Peng-wum replied with a sly wink.
“And there’ve been Euros living year-round at other hotels,” Hao summed up. His father looked thoughtful and Hao added, “I can pay, of course.”
“Out of your allowance?”
“Out of my pay, Father, yes.”
The elder Ni looked at his oldest son, and Peng-wum nodded. “We can have a word with the managers when you get back, okay?”
“Sure.” The two newlyweds smiled at each other.
The Nis had flown out to Krupmark Island the next day after seeing off the Hus. Xiu looked misty-eyed as she waved farewell to her parents.
Hao looked at her as they ate dinner that night. “Are you okay?”
“Well, you seem sad.”
The young woman shrugged, her tail whisking out of a busfur’s way. “I guess it just hit me that I’m grown up now. I don’t need my mother and father any more – because I’m married to a wonderful man.” She grinned at his blush.
The next day the weather was clearing, and the pilots of the Shoshone Skypaths seaplane judged that their craft could make it all the way to San Francisco via the southern islands of Tillamook and Rain Island.
Hao and Xiu sat and watched Hanamahina Bay receding below them as the big Sikorsky climbed to its cruising altitude. He reached over and squeezed her paw reassuringly.
She returned the gesture, with a bit more pressure.
Later they passed the time arm-wrestling.