Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(For mature viewers: Sketch of Jade by Jim Groat)
“Almost late, Wo,” the third-year feline growled as the red panda signed in at the gates to the Songmark Aeronautical School for Young Ladies. “Another few minutes – “
“Yeah yeah, heard it before,” Shin grumbled. “Headwinds all the way from Krupmark. Makes me almost wish M. le Duck will perfect his new plane designs.”
“Hah. Would you trust yourself to a plane with no propeller?” The two shared a hearty laugh at the idea and Shin headed up to the room she shared with the rest of Red Dorm.
“She’s back, an’ on time too!” Brigit said cheerfully. “An’ how much did ye win, playin’ poker with yer family?”
“Lost twenty dollars,” Shin mumbled, and the other three started laughing.
The largest of the five islands that made up the inaptly-named Viceroyalty of Kuo Han was bisected by the Tianlong Mountains, the foothills of which provided terraces for the villas of that nation’s wealthy elite. One of these was the home of Kuo Han’s current Interior Minister, a man of remarkable accomplishments even by the standards of that country’s upper crust.
Chief among those accomplishments was the fact that he had avoided assassination or execution so far.
Minister Chang’s villa was surrounded by a wall patrolled by uniformed troops of Kuo Han’s Army, one of the perks of having been in one government or another for the past twenty years. Chang was also a friend of certain people.
People who had approached him and asked him to act as host for a very distinguished visitor.
Jade approached her master at a gesture and refilled his glass from Chang’s stock of good whiskey. The red panda bowed and backed away to where she had been standing.
Shen Ming didn’t acknowledge his pet’s actions. Her actions didn’t need to be noticed until he chose to notice them. The wolf’s attention was instead focused on Minister Chang.
The man was a serow, one of the deerlike bovines native to Formosa. He was fat, almost grossly so, and although he sat ten feet away from Shen the lupine could hear the man’s stomachs gurgling. The dyspepsia occasionally manifested itself, making the younger man very glad that he was upwind of this disgusting creature.
But the wind changed from time to time and the smell was almost enough to prompt the wolf to ask for pots of burning sulfur to be set out to make the air smell fresher.
It seemed ironic that the Minister of the Interior should himself be beset with internal problems.
Chang belched and took another sip of his drink. “I was wondering if you would be interested in inspecting the products of my farm, Honored Shen.”
“Eh? Farm, you say?”
“Yes,” and the man settled himself after releasing gas again. “I provide product to many sources throughout this part of the world. It has enabled me to maintain my poor self in the manner to which I am accustomed,” he added with a soft chuckle, eclipsed by a belch.
Shen Ming reminded himself that he was a guest and that this repulsively bloated leafeater had connections almost as powerful as his own. “Perhaps some other time,” he said with a smile. “I am quite well-equipped, as you see,” and he flicked his tail in the direction of Jade, who stood impassively a short distance away.
Chang gave a deep chuckle. “Indeed so, sir! In fact, it brings to mind a bit of a theory of mine.”
“Oh?” The concept that this lump had anything approaching an original idea intrigued Shen somewhat.
“Yes, and I shall, if you will indulge me, illustrate my theory by stating that you are a youthful, obviously strong-willed and quite, ah, vigorous man. You draw your strength from your vices, Honored Shen, and the pet there is an example of those vices.”
“So you say that one draws inner strength from their vices, Minister?” The wolf took a long drag on his cigarette and glanced over at Jade. “I confess I’ve never looked at it that way.”
Chang shifted in his seat as the breeze changed, and Shen resisted the urge to wave his paw in front of his nose or, failing that, hold his nostrils closed. Instead, he lit another cigarette as the Minister said, “So few people do, sir. One is always taught to look on his vices as terrible things to be avoided, and to instead cultivate virtues. I look upon virtue, however, as a stumbling block.”
Shen raised an eyebrow as invidious comparisons between the Minister and Le Petomane offered themselves. He wondered whether learning to play a musical instrument (a wind, of course) as a calf would have made Chang just the tiniest bit more tolerable. “A stumbling block?”
“Yes!” The serow leaned forward in his chair. “Vices are manifestations of one’s true self, one’s own drives and appetites. One should cultivate them because they’re natural. It’s virtues that are unnatural. Take chastity as an example – is it natural for a man to suppress his most natural drive?”
Shen allowed himself a smile. “No. Of course not.”
“Exactly! That’s why I have always tried to cultivate my vices, Honored Shen. I – “ He broke off as a young ram in a suit appeared at the door to the terrace. “Ah! What is it, Lin?”
The sheep moved forward on silent hooves and whispered in the bovine’s ear. When he straightened, Chang gave a slightly exasperated snort. “It seems that there is a message for me, from Wangchung. I expect the Governor wishes me to hold his paw over some trifle or other. I sometimes wonder why the Nis continue to keep him in power.”
“The Nis?” Shen asked.
“Yes. Employees of your great-uncle. They took over the strings on the Governor from that barbarian Allworthy.” With the young ram’s assistance, Chang got to his hooves. “I regret I must leave you, Honored Shen. The staff will see to your needs.”
“’Quick, Henry, the Flit,’” Shen muttered under his breath in English, a language he knew the Minister would not understand. The wolf forced a smile as he shook paws with the serow and watched as he was helped back into the house.
He made a gesture, and Ling moved silently to his side. “I want information on the Ni Family,” he said softly.
“Yes, my Lord.”
That night Ming perused the dossier his bodyguard had procured for him. The Nis had managed to turn a profit very quickly, and were responsible for a good portion of his great-uncle’s wealth and influence.
His eyes widened when he read a terse note scrawled at the bottom of one page.
“Hey, Wo!” one of the third years yelled, and when the red panda poked her head out of her dorm door the other girl threw a bulky package wrapped in brown paper up to her. “Mail!”
“Thanks, Rogers,” Shin said as she caught the parcel. “And I hope you break a leg,” she muttered under her breath as she carried the package into the room and placed it on her bed. The other members of the dorm looked on as she started to cut the heavy twine securing it.
“Another package of papers, Shin?” Liberty asked.
Shin laughed as the others chuckled. “I hope not. I’d really like to avoid talking to lawyers this ter – wow,” and she took a half-step back after opening the parcel.
The others got up to see, and three pairs of eyes went wide as the red panda femme held up a gown of expensive Shantung silk. The tan dress contrasted with her darker fur, and was embellished with dragons at the throat and cuffs, embroidered in gold and silver thread.
Liberty sniffed. "Bourgeois."
Tatiana added, “Da. Decadent."
"And ye'll both be wanting t'try it on, I s’pose," Brigit said.
The two started to nod, caught themselves and glared at the Irish setter, who started laughing merrily. A pause, and they joined in.
Once the laughter subsided, Liberty asked, “Did Fang send it?”
“No sign of a card,” Shin said after inspecting the box.
The weather hadn’t been the best, and the yacht had wallowed and bucked sickeningly in the late-winter swells before the crew sighted the peak of Mount Krupp and the lower hump of Traitor’s Ridge. There was an exchange of wireless signals as the vessel’s motor launch was readied and loaded with its passengers. “They signal that they’re waiting for you, my Lord,” the boat’s captain said.
“Very well.” Savile Row made excellent overcoats, and right now the firm’s reputation was being tested to its limits by the salt spray kicked up by the wind. Jade’s padded cage had already been safely put aboard, and Ming allowed himself to be helped into the launch. As soon as he was seated the boat cast off and headed for the barrier reef.
The captain’s timing had been good. It was high tide and the launch made it over the reef without mishap. At the dock a large group of furs with lighted torches could be seen.
A brighter light winked on, off, on.
A recognition signal.
One of the boat’s crew responded, and the boat came to rest beside a dock. Paws reached out to tie it fast and a slim feline in a stiffly starched Chinese uniform with the rank badges of a colonel helped Ming onto the dock, then saluted. “My Lord Shen.”
“Colonel Wen,” Ming said, nodding pleasantly. He looked around at the motley assortment of heavily armed furs that lined the dock. “You have taken adequate precautions, I see.”
“Of course, Sir,” the onetime Army officer replied, falling in beside the younger wolf as the two started along the dock. “I do not anticipate any trouble.” The flickering lamplight gleamed on the feline’s bared teeth. Wen had a certain reputation for ruthlessness, and as expected he was putting it on full display for his prospective new employer.
Ming flicked an ear. His tiger bodyguard nodded.
They were ready to react if Colonel Wen had had other orders, or was thinking of replacing the wolf as the old man’s heir.
The armed guards, perhaps twenty in all, cleared away the small crowd of beggars and assorted gawkers with brutal efficiency. To Ming’s surprise, they only used clubs and axe handles to do their job. “Why not simply shoot them?” he asked Wen.
“Your great-uncle, Honored Shen, insists upon it,” the feline replied. “He says that these may be useful at times.”
“I can’t imagine how,” Ming murmured, pausing to light a cigarette.
Once the group was safely within the walls of Shen’s compound, Ming was shown to the main building and to a collection of rooms on the second floor. There was only one flight of stairs leading up to the suite, with locked doors at each end and superintended by armed guards.
The interior and furnishings harkened back to the elder Shen’s youth as a noble of the Imperial Court. As Jade disrobed and went to prepare his bath, Ming used a priceless vase as an ashtray.
He took his time getting cleaned up, first luxuriating in the bath until the water grew cold then taking his pet to bed for a few hours.
Which required him to bathe again.
Dressed in a faultless tweed suit, he was escorted from his suite to his great-uncle’s rooms. At the door, the guards paused so he could go in alone.
The door closed behind him.
“Venerated Great-uncle,” Ming said carefully in Court Dialect as he bowed deeply in a show of respect.
Only a show, however. “It gives me great pleasure to see that you are still alive after all these years. I beg leave to inquire why.”
Shen Jintao smirked and set aside his teacup before replying, “My deterioration continues with all the slow inevitability of your thoughts, my worthy great-nephew.” He switched to a less refined dialect. “I have recently reached an age where thoughts of spending the remainder of my life in ease and comfort have begun to appeal to me.”
“I have gathered that you wish to retire.” Ming took a seat set a scrupulous ten paces away from the older man.
“Quite true. And you as my heir.”
The younger wolf nodded, his tail swishing slightly. “I will therefore presume that you have things arranged.”
Ming leaned forward a bit in his chair. “I have a say in this?”
“In all things, except regarding my income, living arrangements, and one other item.”
The younger man waited.
“My sister Jiang . . . she will die.”
Ming’s ears flicked back. “Great-uncle, I know that you dislike your sister, but she is my grandmother – “
“She dies.” Jintao’s voice grew sharp.
“As you wish,” Ming replied deferentially. “Quietly?”
Jintao considered. “Yes. And she must not suffer unduly.”
“Very well.” Ming sat back, thinking that a silken cord might suffice. His grandmother always loved silk.
“There is also the matter of Manchukuo,” Jintao said. “I shall need to cede control over the government there to you.”
Ming’s tail stopped dead in surprise. “We control the Kangde Emperor?”
Jintao had closed his eyes. He now opened them, giving Ming a frosty look. “I do,” he snapped.
“Yes, yes of course. What I meant was – “
“I understand what you meant, my boy. The Kangde Emperor – may his name live a thousand years – is only a puppet, dominated and guided by those around him, who are in their turn controlled by their Japanese overlords.” The old wolf smiled, partly for the look on Ming’s face, and partly for the studied insult to the Emperor. “It is a simple matter to attach strings to the puppeteers.”
Ming nodded, secretly impressed with how the old man had managed to so cleverly continue running at least a piece of China. “I am told that you also control the Governor of Kuo Han.”
“That was good fortune. The gods smile on one of my subordinates.”
“I have heard, yes. Ni Hei, I believe?”
“Where is he from?”
“His clan was once powerful in Tientsin, and he has labored very industriously to recover his family’s former influence. Quite an astute businessman.”
“I see.” A moneygrubber, then. Greed was something Ming could use.
The conversation turned to other topics; the opium farms in the far northern reaches of Siam and Burma, the smuggling of oil and weapons in Iran, the possible replacement of Kuo Han’s Governor and Interior Minister. Finally Jintao rang a small bell by his chair. “You must be quite fatigued from your long voyage.”
Ming nodded. It was just like the old monster to haul him all the way out here and subject him to a long talk with only a few hours of rest and leisure. Well, he could wait the old man out.
“I am, Great-uncle, and I thank you for your consideration,” he said aloud in an earnest tone. “From what we have discussed, I feel that I can safely take over as your heir.”
“I sense some reluctance.”
“No, my Lord. But there is something I wish to have first.”
“Yes. It must be precious, so all will know my clan’s wealth and status. It must be beautiful, so all will know of my discernment. And it must be deadly, so that all will tremble in fear at my wrath.”
Jintao nodded. “And what do you have in mind, Great-nephew?”
Ming smiled. “A bodyguard. A very special bodyguard.”