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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!)
The first year students were swimming after several hours of boating practice. Shin rubbed a knot on her head, the product of not ducking fast enough as the boom swung hard to the left (port, she reminded herself) when she tacked into the wind. She pulled her tail out of the water and walked up onto the beach, wringing water from the thick fur. Strong as she was (and getting stronger), her tail was far more effective as an anchor than as a rudder or propeller. She always finished the race when swimming, but would only come in first if everyone else drowned. At least the water was a pleasantly cool respite from the late spring heat. She finished wringing out her tail and sat down on the soft sand, drawing her knees up to her chest.
“Shin, there you are.” The red panda turned as the rabbit loped up to her.
“Hello, Adele,” Shin said brightly. “How was your vacation?”
The brown-furred rabbit grinned widely. “Just great,” she said. “I had a wonderful time.”
“I’m glad,” Shin said as she watched the rabbit sit down next to her. “It’s certainly not as bad as they say it is, huh?” she asked with a grin.
“Well, someone did try to cheat the Casino,” Adele said, “but your mother took care of it.” She briefly thought about telling Shin how it had been taken care of, but she firmly put her foot down on the idea. There was no need for her to know.
Shin chuckled, looking out at the water as Tatiana almost fell out of the boat as she turned it too sharply. “’Took care of it.’ That sounds a bit ominous,” she remarked. “Do you know if Mom handled it personally, or did she let my little brother have some fun?”
That made Adele’s ears stand up. “Your little brother?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s the muscle end of the family,” Shin said with a smile. “He’s personally killed – oh, I don’t know, about five in the past year or so.” She grimaced as she stood up at a gesture from the native-dressed Spontoonie who was their sailing instructor. “Well, my turn again,” she said, walking toward the water.
Adele just sat there, blinking at the slim younger woman as she shoved the boat out into the water and climbed aboard. To hear Shin speak so matter-of-factly about her younger brother being a murderer shocked Adele deeply. No matter what, she resolved, she’d make every effort to avoid Krupmark Island in the future. She stood up, dusted herself off and walked back to the Academy.
Later, four exhausted first year students sat down at their table in the dining hall. Tatiana slumped slightly. “Is everyone as tired as me?” she asked.
“I’m all in,” Brigit said as the cooks started serving them, “and no sign of anything to eat after a long day but poi.” She abruptly straightened and smiled winningly as Miss Cardroy walked by, giving their tutor every indication that all four of them were looking forward to the meal.
Shin’s nose twitched as a one-can serving of Maconochie beef was placed in front of Liberty, whose expression grew dour. The four started eating although the New Haven girl seemed quite unenthusiastic about the appearance and taste of her meal. “Enjoying your meal, Liberty?” Miss Cardroy asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” the coyote said as she spooned up a serving of the stew and shoveled it into her mouth. Her muzzle twisted as she chewed and swallowed, then attempted a smile. Miss Cardroy nodded, then looked sternly at Brigit as she snickered.
Late that night Shin stirred, her feet threshing under the sheet as her paws curled into fists and her tail fluffed out. Her breathing became labored, then quickened as she gave a soft moan and rolled over.
In her dreaming mind she saw the late and unlamented General Won Lung Ho, his severed head cradled under one arm as he pointed accusingly at her with his free paw. He didn’t say a word, but the look on his blood-smeared face spoke volumes: You did this, he was saying, and you will have to pay. The voice grew louder and louder as she squirmed on the bed.
With a short, strangled cry she sat up in bed, her breathing harsh and stertorous as she came awake and became aware of her surroundings. Gradually she calmed down, glancing at the others.
They had all slept through her nightmare, and she was glad of that. It wouldn’t do to show any weakness, not to these barbarians, knowingly using her father’s term for anyone who wasn’t Chinese.
The dream was one she had only infrequently, maybe twice since she and Fang had returned from China, but it was still a wrenching experience nonetheless. She eased out of bed and stepped into a pool of moonlight that came through the window to spotlight a portion of the floor. There she slowly brought her breathing under control and began to step through the tai chi forms, gradually releasing the tension and fear from her body and mind.
After perhaps a half hour she felt sufficiently relaxed to return to her bed, where she slept the rest of the night quite untouched by any nightmares.
“Are you sure?” Nailani asked as Peng-wum finished telling her what he had seen. Although he had itched to tell someone about the arrival of two warships, Pangai’s small fishing fleet had stayed out until its holds were full. Now, four days later, he was certain that the ships had already left the islands.
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said as he sat beside her on a woven mat in their new home. “I was too far away to see what nation they might’ve been from.”
“Well, if there had been anything wrong, the alarm would have been sounded,” Nailani said. Her husband nodded, slipping an arm around her shoulders and smiling as she hugged him. “I know,” he admitted. “I just hope that there was someone at Krupmark watching. The news from China and Japan …” He paused and shook his head. “Very bad.” He sighed and she kissed him, then giggled as his paw caressed her belly.
“Ticklish?” he asked with a smile.
“You know that I am,” she replied, and grimaced as she shifted position on the mat. “My back is starting to hurt from carrying our child,” she said, rubbing a spot just above her tail.
“So soon?” She sighed as he moved behind her and started rubbing the spot, paws working up her spine.
“Yes. The Wise One says that he’s growing fast.” The pronoun caused Peng-wum to freeze momentarily, and he came around to kneel in front of her. “A son?”
“That’s what she says,” Nailani said.
It was another beautiful, although quite warm, Saturday morning in late May. Shin had taken the opportunity of a small break to do some studying at what was fast becoming her favorite spot, a bench under the shade of several large trees. The trees were set far enough from the fence line that they couldn’t be used for escapes. She read absorbedly, making notes as she puzzled her way through a navigation problem.
“Shin?” At the sound of her name the red panda looked up from her reading to see a rather distressed rabbit standing in front of her.
“Yes, Adele?” she asked, laying aside her textbook. “What’s the matter?”
Adele’s paws worked, clenching and unclenching as she sat down beside the first year. “I … I’m late,” she blurted.
“Well, you really should get going – ohh, I see,” Shin said, abandoning her attempt at a joke when she saw the look on the rabbit’s face. A brow quirked. “You really did have fun at the Casino last month, didn’t you?” At the rabbit’s hesitant nod, Shin sat forward, cradling her chin in her paws. “That’s a problem,” she said.
While the Songmark staff had no qualms about their charges getting involved in intimacy, pregnancy was a sure ticket back home, with no refund of tuition fees. To say nothing of the social cost of such an inconvenience. “What am I going to do now?” Adele said, looking as if she was one breath away from crying.
“Let me think for a moment,” Shin said. “How much are you late?”
“A-about three weeks,” Adele replied, blushing.
The red panda nodded. “There’s – well, there are certain things that we can try,” she said, standing and picking up her textbooks. “Let me take a water taxi over to Casino Island, and I’ll talk to a few people.” She smiled at Adele, who looked at her hopefully.
“Thank you, Shin,” she said. “I won’t forget this.”
As if I won’t remind you every day, Shin thought as she walked briskly away.
Three hours later Shin sat in the rear of the water taxi, thinking hard. All of the usual specialists she knew of on Casino Island were out of town - and not at a business convention either. There was only one place she and Adele could go to get her taken care of.
Shin suddenly smiled. It would be nice to see her parents again.
“Back to Krupmark?” Adele gasped, her ears standing straight up. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m sorry, Adele,” the red panda said earnestly, “but there is no one on the island who can do what is needed. Now, I know of only one absolutely reliable um, surgeon, and he’s at the Lucky Dragon. Unless, of course, you’d like to explain what happened to Miss Wildford?”
At the name the rabbit looked even more distressed. She frowned and stamped one foot in frustration as she said, “Fine. But how do we get there? You know that you’re not allowed to make any unauthorized flights during term.”
“I know.” Shin folded her arms across her chest and looked at her feet for a moment, unconsciously copying her father’s thinking posture. She looked up. “I know a few people who own planes,” she said. “It will probably cost a lot, but I can get us one. We can probably go – well, tomorrow’s Sunday. Perfect timing.”
Adele looked worried, and Shin looked at her until she said, “Okay, okay. What choice do I have?”
Shin rested a paw on the rabbit’s shoulder solicitously. “Don’t worry, Adele. Everything will work out,” and with that she walked up the stairs into her dorm.
As soon as the door closed she grinned, baring her teeth as she pulled a pint bottle of whiskey from a concealed pocket in her school jacket. Kneeling she eased aside a piece of baseboard and slipped the bottle into hiding. She giggled; Adele had been so preoccupied that it hadn’t occurred to her that Shin might try to smuggle anything in.
The next day was bright and sunny, with a suggestion of the summer’s heat already making some peoples’ tongues hang out. Shin and Adele headed over to Casino Island on a water taxi almost as soon as it was possible without drawing attention.
It was expensive, but Shin bargained hard and nearly an hour later the two girls had finished fueling and preflighting a battered Fairchild FC-2 floatplane with faded Canadian Northwest Rescue Service markings. Shin cast off the lines and climbed aboard as Adele started the single Wright engine. “It’s old,” Shin said as she strapped herself in, “but it’ll get us there and back.”
“Are you sure?” Adele asked for what seemed to be the sixth time, still nervous about the whole thing. She taxied the floatplane out into the takeoff lane and throttled up. The plane responded like the reliable workhorse it had been designed to be, and once they were airborne Adele remarked, “This is nice. Are we carrying any cargo?”
“If we were, would you turn us around?” Shin asked mischievously.
Adele smiled sourly. “If we get caught, I at least want to know why.” Shin laughed.
With a strong tail wind, the plane made good time and Adele started the rightward spiral she’d been taught. The plane’s floats set down just inside the barrier reef, and Adele said, “Shin, you need to let them know who’s here.”
“Look.” Two felines stood at the end of the pier with rifles. One was bringing his up to firing position.
Before Adele could react Shin cut the engine and as it died she opened her door and stepped out onto a float. Holding on to one strut she screamed a few choice words in Chinese. The two on the pier looked at each other, and Shin screamed again, this time in English and using language that made Adele realize that Shin had learned quite a few things from being raised in the Casino.
One of the men on the pier waved then, and Shin said to Adele, “Start us up and head in. We won’t be bothered by them.”
“You know them?” Adele asked.
“Yeah, they’re the Lee brothers. Strictly muscle, and not much brains,” she replied.
The plane was tied up to the dock and Shin led Adele inside the Ni & Sons building. “Shin!” Ni Peng exclaimed, and gasped as her daughter ran to her and hugged her fiercely. “What are you doing here? And Adele, how nice of you to come back to visit.”
“Mrs. Ni,” Adele said shyly as Shin took her mother aside and started talking to her in a very rapid string of Chinese words. Peng listened intently, then stared hard at Adele. “Ahmad,” she said.
The fennec looked up from his desk. “Yes, Madam Ni?”
“Go and fetch Mei Ling, please. Now, Shin, let me look at you,” she said, holding Shin out at arm’s length and eyeing her critically. “You look so well, my dear.”
“I get a lot of exercise, Mother,” Shin said, a happy smile on her face. Mei Ling entered just then, and a brief conversation ensued until Peng said in English, “Adele, I want you to go with Mei Ling over to the Lucky Dragon. She knows what to do.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Ni,” the rabbit said. “Will I – “
“If you have any questions, Mei Ling will answer them,” Peng said gently but in a firm tone. Adele followed the feline out, and Peng said to Shin, “Come, your father must see you.”
“We can’t stay long, Mother,” Shin said as they headed upstairs. “The gates at Songmark close at sundown.”
“Then we will have to be brief,” her mother said as she opened the door. “Hei, here is someone to see you.”
Ni Hei stood up and grinned at the sight of his daughter. She ran to him and he swept her up in his arms as she kissed his cheek. Putting her feet back on the floor he said, “Shin, Daughter, you are looking lovely. I take it that everything goes well at school?”
“Things are great, Father. I passed my first solo flight a few weeks ago.”
“Really? I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about it,” he said, and her tail drooped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I really should write more often.”
“That is no matter. Just seeing you here is a joy.” Peng said. She suddenly paused, as if a thought had struck her. “Shin, you may want to look at this. Hei, do you have – ah, good,” she said as her husband pulled a yellow envelope from his desk and handed it to Shin.
Shin looked at her parents as she untied the string holding the envelope closed, then studied the contents.
Her laughter could be heard out at the dock, where a mechanic was busily refueling the Fairchild.
“About time, you two,” Molly Procyk said as Shin and Adele showed up at the Songmark gate just as the sun was going down. We were thinking we’d have to turn out and hunt you down.” The Chicagoan doe seemed to relish the thought of hunting Shin down, probably armed.
Shin smiled sweetly as Adele brushed past them and headed for her room. “We were held up by headwinds, but we’re here on time, Molly,” she said. As she walked to the dorm entrance she heard Amelia Bourne-Phipps say something about sailing practice, and grinned to herself.