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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
© 2004 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark Academy and characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The sun rising over the Spontoon Archipelago gleamed off the rain-washed nose of the Ni Family Keystone-Loening K-85 as it descended to land in the harbor, the freshly painted guardian dragons on either side of the bow flaunting their garish colors. It was a rare sunny day for late November, and Shin remarked, “A good omen for today, huh Fang?” and hugged her husband from behind as Hao piloted the plane in for a landing.
“Looks like it,” the tiger replied, and he jerked as his wife playfully bit his ear. His paws shook the copilot’s control yoke and the K-85 shuddered. As Hao brought the plane back under control Fang said, “Watch it, Shin. I’ll get you back for that.”
“Oh really?” she asked. “You and who else?” She laughed, bracing as the plane’s hull struck the water as gently as possible and started to slow down. “Hao,” she remarked, tapping his shoulder as the seaplane moved out of the landing lane to await a tow to the dock, “you and Anna don’t have to wait. I don’t think Fang and I will be coming back.”
Hao laughed and shut down the engine as the towboat drew close and Anna climbed out to secure a rope to the K-85’s nose cleat. “Don’t worry, Shin,” he said. “Anna and I will probably spend the night here, then head back home. I want to take a look at the engine while we’re here as well. It sounds as if it needs oil or something.” He tapped at a few of the gauges and snorted as the needles swung.
“Just don’t go draining it here in the harbor,” Fang joked. “Remember what happened the last time.”
Anna climbed back into the cabin in time to catch Fang’s deep chuckle; she asked Hao, “What’s so funny?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Hao said, “after the two lovebirds are off to South Island.” He grinned as Shin playfully batted him across the back of his head with her tail.
Shin and Fang unloaded their bags and set off for the water taxis as Hao and Anna walked to the harbormaster’s building. As they waited to arrange for the plane to be towed to the mechanic’s dock, Anna asked, “So. What happened ‘last time?’”
“It was about a year or so ago,” Hao confessed. “I decided to try and change the oil in the plane myself, and made a mistake. Oil all over the wing and getting into the water, and people had a great time laughing at me as I slipped and slid all over the place. Took weeks to get all of the oil out of my fur, and Pop made me pay for the cleanup of the harbor, and a new paint job on the plane.” He blushed, tail drooping, as Anna laughed.
Walking back to the dock, Hao suddenly froze and grabbed Anna’s sleeve. “There he is again,” he whispered to her, pointing out a canine who was leaving the tourist office.
“Who?” Anna asked.
Anna’s ears twitched as his question took her by surprise, and she looked at the canine again before shaking her head. “No,” she replied. “He’s too conspicuous. Moskva would never send a person like him out here,” she added as they watched the canine head for the Royal Hawaiian Airways office. “Come on, there’s our tow,” she said, pointing to the dock. She and Hao headed over to the quay, where she watched as he haggled with the boat’s captain and finally agreed on a price.
As the seaplane was towed away, a figure stepped out of the morning shadows near the harbormaster’s office.
* * * * * * * * *
Engaging a water taxi for the entire day had been expensive, but worth it, Shin thought as the strong little craft bobbed and pitched against the current. It would take several hours to reach South Island, and more time to get her to her appointment on Eastern Island, but she had the time. As the deck pitched slightly, she steadied herself by leaning against Fang. He hugged her gently from behind. “Nervous?” he asked.
She stroked the fur on his strong arms. “You’d better believe it,” she said. “I haven’t been this nervous since our wedding day.”
“You were nervous that day? You sure didn’t look like you were,” Fang said, then chuckled. “I just felt silly in all that costume.”
“You looked marvelous,” Shin said, almost purring (despite the fact she wasn’t feline) as he held her closer. “I was just glad I was veiled part of the way. If you’d have seen my face you would think I was airsick or something.” They laughed, and even the taxi pilot chuckled.
The Maha Kahuna Hotel was not the largest or best on Spontoon, but it was a largely successful partner with the Ni Family. The hotel’s owner, an oddly portly mongoose, greeted them as they stepped onto the pier. “Hello,” Fang said as he offered a paw, “you must be Davenendhra Singh?”
The mongoose shook the paw firmly. “The same,” he said with only the barest hint of an accent. “Call me Daven, please. And you are Wo Fang?” At the tiger’s nod Singh smiled in a delighted expression. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he said. Fang smiled as Singh shook Shin’s paw. “I have already approved you for the posts of manager and house detective, Mr. Wo,” Singh said as Shin and Fang gathered up their luggage and started walking along the dock, “and we have a small house on the hotel grounds that you might find to your liking. The previous manager lived there until her retirement, and it saves having to hunt down a house agent,” he concluded with a grin.
The house was a one-bedroom bungalow modeled on a strange, but comfortable, mix of native longhouse and Euro cottage. Shin put her two suitcases down on the bed and remarked, “It looks perfect, Fang, what do you think?”
Her husband looked around, finally nodding judiciously. “I think it’ll work out very nicely.”
The two had an early lunch in the hotel’s dining room, and Shin made small talk until Fang said sternly, “Shin, you’re delaying. You have an appointment, you know, and you want to keep it.”
“I know.” Shin picked up a small case that contained some paperwork, and a suitcase that she felt carried everything she’d need, at least for the first few days or so. She kissed her husband and murmured, “Wish me luck.”
He nuzzled her, then nipped her cheek and grinned as she blushed in surprise. “That’s for luck, my ringtailed beauty.”
* * * * * * * * *
The water taxi was waiting for her, and the fur piloting the small craft helped Shin load her suitcases before moving away from the dock. As the hours passed, Shin looked over the papers she had brought with her, hoping that she had brought everything she needed.
The water taxi dropped her off at the Eastern Island pier and the pilot accepted an ample tip, the woman even going so far as to murmur a blessing in Spontoonie as the red panda headed for the school compound.
Surprisingly, there was no one at the gate to meet her, and the gate was stoutly padlocked. Shin waited until the sun climbed a bit higher in the sky, then muttered to herself, “Well, here goes.” Leaving the suitcase concealed within the shadows of a bougainvillea near the gate, she reached up and hooked the handle of her smaller case over one of the fence posts. She then climbed up the fence and dropped to the ground. As she reached up for her case her ears perked at the sound of running feet.
She turned in time to dodge the initial onrush of a black-clad, hooded feline who lashed out at her with paws and feet. Holding the case out to one side, Shin used it to block several blows from the unknown fur before going on the offensive, driving the feline back. The case blocked an overhead chop and Shin kicked her attacker solidly in the stomach, causing the feline to double over. The assailant retreated, and Shin pursued for a short distance until she was certain that the feline was not going to regroup and come at her again. She headed for the nearest door and tried it.
Locked. Two more doors had similar results, and Shin headed around to the north side of the dormitory blocks. As she rounded the corner she stopped dead as a chorus of soft growls greeted her.
Guard dogs, three of them. Staying very still, Shin looked around for a likely escape route. There were several trees tall enough to provide sanctuary, but nowhere near the building. “Nice doggies,” she whispered, then bolted back the way she came, hearing the dogs break into a run as they chased her.
Shin raced around a corner and paused, panting as she eluded the dogs for a few short seconds. She looked up and around wildly, finally staring as she caught sight of an open second-story window at one corner. With a deep breath, she threw her case up at the window; it ricocheted off the side of the frame and fell into the room. There was a downspout nearby, and she started to climb it as the dogs rounded the corner and spotted her.
One jumped and missed her; another jumped and Shin stifled a cry as his teeth closed on her tail, giving her a painful bite. The dog dropped back, unable to hold on as she climbed out of their reach. All three guard dogs then sat, whining and growling as she reached across the space between the downspout and the window and climbed inside, pausing to catch her breath.
“Well done,” said a voice, and Shin whirled, dropping into a defensive crouch as she confronted a woman dressed in a well-tailored suit and skirt. She was a bit taller than Shin, with mostly black fur set off by white patches that made the panda guess she had some skunk ancestry. “Good afternoon, Shin,” the woman continued in a crisp, correct tone. “My name is Miss Wildford, one of the staff of the Songmark Aeronautical School. Welcome.” She turned and started for the door as Shin stared, then hastily gathered up her case and followed her.
They ended up downstairs, in a dining hall. One table was occupied, with only five chairs. Miss Wildford took a vacant seat beside two felines and a middle-aged canine; a vacant chair opposite these four was obviously for Shin, so she sat facing them. “Have you anything to say before we begin?” one of the felines asked, paws running over a thin folder before her.
“No, ma’am,” Shin replied, sitting up straight in her chair, remembering past admonitions from her mother not to slouch.
“Good,” the feline said. “I am Miss Devinski, and I want to welcome you to Songmark. You’ve already met Miss Wildford, and this is Miss Windlesham and Miss Blande,” and she indicated the other feline and the canine, who smiled. “We want to ask you some questions before we agree to take you on as a student here.” She abruptly switched from English to Chinese – the Fujian dialect. “When did you graduate from high school?”
“Almost eighteen months ago, ma’am,” Shin replied in the same tongue. She reached into her case and produced a sheet of paper. “Here are my grade records.”
“We already have them,” Miss Windlesham said in Spontoonie. “According to your application, your name is Ni Shin, yet you were married more than a month ago. What is your name now?”
“Wo Shin,” ma’am,” came the reply.
Miss Wildford opened a folder and glanced at the contents before asking in Mandarin, “Was that before or after you killed General Won?”
The question caused Shin to blink, and she shifted in her chair, tail swaying slightly as she took a deep breath and replied, “Before, ma’am. My husband assisted me.”
“He assisted you? You did not do this alone?” Miss Windlesham asked.
“No, ma’am. It was necessary to divert attention away from my entering the building, and guarding my back when I killed him,” Shin explained, keeping her voice even.
Miss Blande cocked an ear and observed, “You don’t seem very happy that you killed him.”
Shin replied, “No ma’am, I’m not. It was necessary that he should die, but I had never killed anyone before that day.”
The canine nodded and sat back slightly, a paw tapping the side of her muzzle as Miss Windlesham asked, “Where is your husband now?”
“He is on South Island, ma’am. He’s started a new job at a local hotel there, and we are setting up a home there as well.”
“Not here or on Krupmark, then?”
“No, ma’am. On South Island, he will be near enough that I can visit him on holidays – if it is permitted – but not so close that he could be a distraction to me,” she replied, and the feline gave her a calculating look that Shin returned calmly.
Miss Devinski said, “I must ask you a rather delicate question now, Shin,” and her tail twitched as she asked, “Are you pregnant?”
“No, ma’am,” she said promptly. “I learned how to prevent that at an early age.” Shin said this last very matter-of-factly. Any person growing up in a place like the Lucky Dragon tended to learn things from the staff.
“I see. Any tropical diseases or parasites that you know of?”
“You were observed as you entered the School grounds,” Miss Wildford said. “Where did you get your martial arts training?”
“From my brothers’ tutors, ma’am. They were expatriate Shaolin monks,” Shin said, recalling the three unsmiling felines.
“You used your case as a shield and as a weapon when facing your attacker, but it weighed you down as you ran from the dogs. Tell me,” and Miss Wildford’s skunk tail twitched, “why did you still have the case, instead of throwing it away?”
“The case contained papers and records that I felt were necessary. I didn’t want to lose them.” Miss Blande laid a paw on Miss Devinski’s shoulder and whispered; the feline nodded and asked Shin, “Do you have a pilot’s license? A logbook?”
“I don’t have a license, ma’am,” Shin said, ears dipping slightly as she looked into her case. The tip of her tail throbbed where the guard dog had bit her. “Here is my logbook,” and she placed a small hardbound ledger on the table.
The staff members looked at the logbook, Miss Windlesham jotting a few notes, then doing a sum or two. She looked up. “According to this, you have logged almost a hundred hours of flight time this year, and twenty hours solo,” she said.
“That’s correct, ma’am.”
The feline’s expression hardened. “If you are accepted here, young lady,” and she stressed the first word as if to tell her that her entrance was not at all definite, “you will not be allowed to fly or even touch the controls of a plane unless we tell you to. You have a lot to learn. This,” and her pencil tapped the ledger, “will no longer exist.”
“I understand, ma’am,” Shin said meekly.
Miss Devinski asked, “Does anyone have any further questions?” When no one spoke up she told Shin, “Please step outside, Shin. One of us will call you back in when we are finished.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, and picked up her case as she stood. She bowed slightly to the staff, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
She waited, trying to stay still and resist the urge to press an ear against the door. Finally she moved a few feet from the door, put her case down and took several deep breaths. Her eyes closed as she began to step through the opening forms of tai chi, ignoring the pain in her tail and gradually slowing her breathing and pulse.
When the door opened after almost half an hour, Shin stood quietly waiting. Miss Blande smiled as she poked her head around the door and said, “Come in, please.”
As Shin resumed her seat Miss Devinski said, “We have agreed to accept you as a student here at Songmark, Shin.” Her expression told Shin that she hadn’t agreed with the decision, or at best had accepted it only grudgingly. “However, we want you to be examined medically. There’s no telling what you might have come in contact with on Krupmark.”
Shin blinked at that, but nodded. “I understand, ma’am. Krupmark’s a bit off the beaten track, and doctors aren’t common.” She refrained from mentioning two doctors with disreputable backgrounds who had set up a practice of sorts. “Of sorts” meant that while they did practice medicine, one of the island’s ruling clique used their services as interrogators. It certainly made going to the dentist a very interesting proposition.
Miss Devinski nodded at that, and gave a small, wintry smile. “Miss Blande will show you to your dorm room, and introduce you to the girls you’ll be living with.” She leaned forward. “Your classes will start on January the fourth, and you will be expected to maintain good grades and conduct yourself properly.”
“Yes ma’am,” Shin said, fighting down the happy tears she felt. As the staff stood, she got up and asked, “Miss Devinski, when should I go for my checkup?”
“Preferably before the end of this week,” the feline replied. “And you’ll have to pay for it. Now, Miss Blande, please show our new student to her room.”