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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Payoffs© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and Songmark characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Gods,” Shin muttered in Chinese, “I’m stifling in this,” and she squirmed in her leather flying suit. At least the propwash from her de Havilland Tiger Moth’s engine allowed her face to cool off a bit. She nodded at the signal from the flight leader, ignored the hoots and catcalls from the older students and pulled her goggles down over her eyes.
The day had not started auspiciously, with the indignity of Liberty actually throwing her halfway across the mats during their defense classes just before breakfast. Her eartips had burned with embarrassment as the other girls had cheered. At least she had done better at the firing range, actually scoring better than the New Haven girl. Brigit’s pointers had helped her out a lot.
At another signal she advanced the small biplane’s throttle, gauging how fast to go to counteract the heavier air. She had seen several of the other first years almost ground-loop their plane – not something one needed to enhance a grade. Still, she thought, this plane’s not too different from Hao’s Nin Hai … please, Gods, don’t let me screw up …
The plane roared aloft without a single bounce, clawing for altitude as Shin took care not to stall out. The tutor flying alongside her nodded approvingly and gestured with her gloved hand. Shin nodded; up, once around, and down. She spared a glance around as she banked the aircraft.
The spring sky was a brilliant blue, and the wind hummed through the struts and bracing wires of her plane. Shin felt like singing. It had been months since she had been up alone in an airplane, and she missed the feeling of complete freedom.
She completed the turn and descended, watching the plane’s tendency to sideslip before lightly touching the strip and coming to a stop. As she shut down the engine and pulled off her flying helmet, Miss Cardroy walked up to the plane. “Well done, Shin. Top marks for today.”
The red panda beamed and shook out her headfur. “Thank you, ma’am.” She had been keeping track, and her score guaranteed that her entire dorm was in the top five of the first years. Climbing from the plane, she grinned as she saw the other three waving.
Later, after a shower and an afternoon spent in class studying navigation and first aid, Shin and her dormmates sat down to dinner. All four perked up as nostrils flared. “Could it be - ?” Tatiana breathed, her eyes wide.
“I think so,” Brigit sighed as Miss Cardroy and the cooks approached with their reward for their successful solo flights. “Roast chicken,” Shin murmured, her tail twitching. It had been over two weeks since she last set (unsupervised) foot outside of Songmark, and any food but poi was most certainly welcome. As the plates were set before them, Brigit put her napkin to her lips to hide the fact that she had started to drool.
Liberty Morgenstern suddenly stood up, her slim frame quivering as she said, “I don’t want it.”
The other three froze dumbfounded, utensils poised over their plates. Shin caught Brigit and Tatiana both starting to snarl, and she actually felt her own muzzle cresting as Miss Cardroy asked, “I beg your pardon, Liberty?”
“I said, take it away, please,” she amplified, obviously trying to ignore the delicious scent of the meal. “Our hard work is its own reward, and I don’t think it’s right that poor agriculturalist cubs should go hungry so that we and those elitist tourists can stuff ourselves.” It was a rehearsed speech, and Shin felt one paw curling into a fist. Yes, her kidneys were at about the right height, and nearly within range …
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Liberty,” Miss Cardroy said reasonably, holding out her paws for the half-coyote’s plate. “And since you don’t want it, I’m sure your classmates won’t mind. Do you mind sharing Liberty’s portion, girls?”
“No, ma’am,” the other three fairly chorused as the older woman added more food to their plates. A plate of poi was brought for Liberty and set before her. “Eat up,” Miss Cardroy said.
The New Haven girl blinked, looking around at her fellows and at the other students, mystified that no one – not even Tatiana – was joining her in what was to her a very moral stand. In fact, the best she could get from any of them was a commiserating glance or two as the others started eating. With a soft sound at the back of her throat she sat down and ate her poi without a word.
To Shin, the chicken was the best she had ever tasted in her life.
The next day, Miss Cardroy stepped into the dorm while they were dressing for their morning exercises. “Liberty, come with me please.” A politely worded request from their tutor, they had learned, was the equivalent of a harshly shouted set of orders from a drill sergeant. Liberty had walked out with the older woman, and after perhaps thirty seconds the other three girls were crowded around the room’s single window. “What’s going on? I can’t see,” Shin said, craning her neck.
“Hang on a minute,” Brigit snapped, but moved aside slightly. After a moment Tatiana pointed. “There!”
Liberty and Miss Cardroy were talking with another canine, one they recognized as a third year student. The girl was carrying a bulging pack. “Who’s she?” Tatiana asked.
Brigit shook her head, allowing Shin to take a look. “I’ve seen her around, but don’t know her name,” she admitted. “Doesn’t talk much, I guess.” Miss Cardroy said a few words, held up a paw to stifle Liberty’s obviously incipient protest as the other girl settled the pack onto the half-coyote’s back, and saw them off the Academy compound. She glanced up at the first-year’s window, and Tatiana, Brigit and Shin nearly fell over themselves trying to get out of sight.
“Amelia, hi!” Adele said as she rounded a corner of the school’s main building and saw the feline talking with two of her dormmates. “Hello, Adele,” Amelia said. “Anything the matter?”
“No, not really,” Adele said, trying to keep her ears from drooping slightly. The fine hairstyle and manicure she had sported when she had left Krupmark were gone, victims of the rigorous course of study at the school. She didn’t mind very much – she had stayed fit throughout her stay at the Lucky Dragon, as well as discovering new exercises for heretofore completely unexplored muscle groups. Lately, though, she had started feeling uneasy. “Have you seen Shin anywhere?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t. Have any of you seen her?” The others shook their heads, and Amelia said, “She might be down at the docks. I think they were having sailing practice today.”
“Okay, I’ll check down there.” As the rabbit turned to go, the English girl said, “Maria’s been showing us her holiday snaps, Adele. Do you have any from your Easter vacation?”
It took everything Adele had to keep from going absolutely rigid. Muttering “God, I hope not,” she headed away from the group. Once out of sight she paused and took several deep breaths to calm down, reminding herself once again that what happens on Krupmark should stay on Krupmark.
Ni Peng-wum groaned as he straightened up and massaged his aching left shoulder. Since he and Nailani had moved from Casino Island to her family’s village of Pangai (leaving the GH-2 at Superior Engineering for an overhaul and refit), the couple had set up a longhouse near her parent’s house. Peng-wum had decided to try his paw at fishing, explaining that he could make himself useful. She was not expected to have their child until sometime in September, so there was plenty of time for him to learn.
He bent to start hauling on the nets again, matching his movements to the rocking of the small boat in the choppy waters off Main Island’s southwest shoreline. His tail swung to keep him balanced as he worked. The other two furs on the boat, a feline and an otter, offered advice and tried not to laugh too hard at his efforts. Like them, he was dressed for the warm, sunny weather – that is to say, in almost nothing at all. It had taken him a day to get over any feelings of embarrassment.
Their boat was drifting with the outgoing tide, and as it rounded a headland one of the furs pointed and called out. Peng-wum straightened and turned at the sound.
The ships were huge, dwarfing the small fishing boat as they steamed slowly into the main western channel. Both were demonstrably warships and only the second group to visit the islands since a British carrier group the previous year, but were too far away for Peng-wum to pick out any details that he would consider useful.
Shin yawned and sat up, blinking back sleep as she stretched. Something had been nagging at her, and it wasn’t Tatiana’s occasional snoring. As she looked around at the other still-sleeping girls in her dorm she noticed that Liberty’s bed was still empty. She frowned as she realized that she hadn’t seen the coyote in nearly two whole days. If Liberty had slipped out somehow, the tutors would punish the others along with her.
Just as she stood up the door opened and Liberty stumbled into the room, looking haggard. “Where have you been?” Shin asked in a soft voice.
“All over the place,” she whispered, staggering as she flopped facedown on her bed. To Shin’s amazement, the New Havenite fell fast asleep, mumbling cryptically, “Two cans …” With a shrug, Shin went back to bed and had just managed to fall back asleep when the school’s alarm rang.
Brigit and Tatiana got up and looked at Liberty as Shin woke up again. “When did she get in?” Tatiana asked.
“Maybe an hour or so ago,” the red panda said drowsily as she sat up.
Miss Cardroy stuck her head in the doorway. “Come on, girls,” she urged.
“What about Liberty, ma’am?” Brigit asked, pointing at the now-snoring coyote.
“She is not excused,” their tutor said, and left the room as the other three looked at each other. With shrugs, they grabbed Liberty and half-dragged her to the shower.
As they stepped into the shower and turned on the water, Liberty roused and said sleepily, “Hey, I’m tired …”
“And Miss Cardroy says you’re not excused,” Shin said tartly. “Come on now, get your shower.” She and the others helped the coyote undress and guided her under the water, where Liberty spluttered and rubbed at her eyes. “Where the hell were you, anyway?” Shin asked.
It took a little while, but eventually they got the story from her. She and the third year student (who was named Zara) had been assigned to deliver cans of survival rations to every poor family that would accept them. Only two cans, a Great War-era beef meal of some kind, had been accepted by anyone.
The morning exercises, especially the run, were hard on Liberty and the other girls. The coyote kept falling behind, requiring one of the other girls to help her keep up. When she finally sat down for breakfast, her eyes were red and she appeared too tired to yawn. A plate of strong-smelling beef was placed before her as poi was served to the other girls. Shin glanced up from her meal as Liberty asked, “What’s this?”
Miss Cardroy said, in her reasonable tone, “Maconochie stew, of course. You’ve done a good job offering it to all of the poor working-class families, Liberty. But surely you wouldn’t want the thirty-eight leftover cans to go to waste.”
“No, but – “
“So you will be served one can at every mealtime until every one of them are gone.” And with that, Miss Cardroy walked off, leaving Liberty staring at her plate with an expression Shin could only interpret as horrified resignation. She started eating, and from the look on her face the meal was everything its scent advertised.
Funny, Shin thought, poi actually looks appealing today.
“Shin!” Miss Blande called out two days later, and smiled as Wo Shin pelted down the stairs. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Here’s some mail for you,” the tutor said, handing over two letters and a postcard, “and could you give this to Brigit, please.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Shin took the mail and headed back upstairs to her dorm. She and her classmates were taking a break from rock climbing practice earlier in the afternoon, with Kilikiti practice later on. Shin grinned as she paused at the top of the stairs and peeked around one corner. She and Liberty had been conducting a very low-key feud over who could ambush the other, and so far she was one up over the half-coyote.
She walked into her dorm and tossed an envelope to the Irish setter. “Here’s a letter for you, Brigit.”
“Thanks, Shin.” Brigit tore it open and briefly scanned the contents before swearing.
“Bad news?” Liberty asked.
“Aye, bad,” Brigit grumbled. “My brother’s back in Dublin Gaol again.” She read it more closely as Shin studied her own mail.
The letters were from her parents, and one from Fang that she promised herself she’d read just before going to bed. She glanced at the postcard, and her mouth fell open.
It was a standard penny postcard, but it bore several vertical lines of Chinese. The calligraphy was so perfect, so aristocratically pure of stroke and line that she almost had trouble reading it:
“My dear Shin:
My very good friend Beryl has asked me to write to you. Please be assured I not only know her, but I was her class’s president at Saint T’s.
I am told that you are an admirer of my Esteemed Father as well as my unworthy self, so please accept this message, and the lesson it embodies.
The postcard bore three small chops in thick red ink, and Shin gulped as she read the second and third. She would have to have them verified, but her awe at actually holding something written by her in her paws warred with the realization that she was out ten shells to Beryl Parkesson. She squinted at the calligraphy again.
“Bad news?” Brigit asked, and Shin looked up.
“The worst,” Shin said as she put the postcard up on her shelf beside her picture of her parents.
The next weekend she took the postcard with her and hailed a water taxi to Casino Island. There, in a warehouse that was the headquarters of the Merchant’s Association, she had the postcard verified.
“It is genuine,” the giant panda concluded, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes wearily.
Shin shook her head. “Are you certain, Lu Ting?” she pressed. “Could they have been faked?”
Ting shook his head and pointed. “Her personal chop, and here is her clan chop. Now, many people might try to deceive others by using the Family Fu as a cover for their deeds, but retribution would be swift and final. Here, though – “ and he shuddered as he pointed at the third “ – not even a fan-quai would dare use the mark of the Sai-fan. I have heard tales of the last who tried such a thing, and, well, you must understand that what was left was barely recognizable.”
“I see. Thanks, Lu Ting.” With a bow, Shin left the warehouse and returned to the school.
Miss Wilfdord looked up at the soft knock on her office door. “Come in,” and she sat back as Shin and Beryl walked into the room.
“Miss Wildford,” Shin asked, “do you recall the bet that Beryl and I arranged?”
“Yes, Shin, I do. I have the money in case it’s needed.” The senior Songmark tutor smiled as she studied the red panda girl.
Shin looked unhappy as she said, “I ask you to please give the wagered money to Beryl, ma’am. She has won the bet fairly.” She glared at the mouse as she said this, and Beryl just smiled graciously and stepped forward, her paw raised palm up.
Enjoy it, mouse, Shin thought. While you can.