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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Some parts by Reese Dorrycott (from In the Time of Oharu), used with permission.
Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Get her!” and the four members of the Red Dorm descended on the younger prairie dog. Patricia dodged Shin’s grab and jerked the door open, only to be caught partway as Liberty threw her weight against the door and pinned her against the jamb. She wriggled free before she could be pulled back inside and headed for the stairs. Brigit and Shin pushed her as she started down the steps.
Patricia yelped, slipping and landing on her rump as she fell down the steps. She twisted and slid further down, giving a high-pitched squeal of pain as she dislodged a stair tread, and landed in a heap at the foot of the stairs. She staggered to her feet and dashed off.
Shin breathed a harsh curse in Chinese. “She found our stash,” she said, and padded down the stairs to replace the tread as the others went back to the room. There was a sound of approaching footsteps, so she replaced and secured the piece of wood before running back to her dorm.
She closed the door and dove into her bed, pulling the blanket over her. The lights were out in the room, and the others were already feigning sleep with great dedication. As Shin lay there practicing her breathing control, the lights along the fence snapped on, followed by the sound of the sentry dogs barking.
Tatiana sat up. “That does it,” she said. “She has gone over the fence.”
“Which means we get to chase her,” Brigit said. The others were already out of bed and putting their clothes on as Miss Cardroy opened the door. “So, you’ve probably guessed what happened,” she said. “One of the first years has gone over the fence. You four need to go after her.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Shin said as she laced up her boots. The Red Dorm clattered down the stairs and headed for the front gate. “Shin, you and Tatiana head south,” Liberty said. “Brigit and I’ll go north.”
“Who made you leader?” Tatiana demanded, and Shin nudged her with an elbow.
“It’s Tuesday,” the red panda said. “It’s her turn.”
“Oh. Da,” the sable nodded. Red Dorm had started a rotating leadership system shortly after they determined that their tutors were simply waiting for them to fail and thus offer an easy way to expel them en masse. Having a leader made directing a coordinated effort easier – it also made fixing blame easier, as well.
Three hours later Shin and Tatiana were back at the main gate, and Miss Blande fixed them with a stern gaze. “Report,” she said crisply.
“She’s not on Eastern Island, ma’am,” Shin said. “The water taxi drivers say that they didn’t see her, or give her a lift. She might have started swimming.”
The tutor frowned. “Where are Liberty and Brigit?”
Tatiana said, “One of the drivers said they hired a taxi to search along Main Island shoreline.”
Miss Blande nodded. “Very well. Come inside, and we’ll wait for them to report before we send out the third years.” The sable and the red panda exchanged glances. Sending out the third years was usually a last resort, and usually spelled bad news.
“There she is!” Brigit yelled over the sound of the water taxi’s engine, her ears flapping in the breeze as she pointed. Acting on a tip from a fisherman that he had seen someone matching Patricia’s description swimming toward Main Island, the pair had hired a water taxi to assist in their search.
Liberty craned her neck to see, and stood up in the bow of the boat. “That’s her all right,” she said as she saw another water taxi approaching, “but there’s someone with her.” She squinted. “A mouse with a grass skirt on.” She gestured to the driver and pointed in the direction of the other boat. The driver altered course.
Ears twitched as a warbling whistle rang out and feet felt a subtle shift. As the boat suddenly hit a wave bow-on and pitched up, both Brigit and Liberty leaped, arching away from the craft and diving gracefully into the water. They emerged, shaking water from their headfur as their boat circled back to pick them up and the boat carrying their quarry proceeded toward Eastern Island.
The coyote and the Irish setter clambered back aboard the taxi and asked the driver to pursue. Their quarry had a long head start on them now, but it was headed straight back to Songmark.
“What’s going – Liberty, what the hell?” Shin said, her ears standing straight up as the half-coyote appeared at the open doorway. Liberty was soaked clean through, and without immediately replying she stepped into the bathroom and shed her wet uniform.
As she started the shower she said, “As soon as I get cleaned up, we’re wanted in Miss Nordlingen’s office. Immediately,” she amplified as she started soaping up.
“What the hell happened?” Shin demanded as Tatiana peered into the bathroom.
“That stupid little rat hurt herself on the stairs,” Liberty replied. “Maybe a broken rib, but she thinks we tried to kill her.”
“That’s right, so,” Brigit said as she appeared and started to get cleaned up as well. “They might be givin’ us th’ boot fer sure this time ‘round,” and she stepped into the shower as Liberty stepped out and started toweling herself off.
Scant moments later the four of them trooped into the office and lined up. Shin noted a mouse wearing a grass skirt standing in a corner, and recognized the markings in her fur. What’s a priestess doing here? she wondered.
“Red Dorm reporting, ma’am,” Liberty announced.
There was a pause as the feline behind the desk took her time sipping her coffee. Finally she asked, “When is attempted murder of a fellow student part of the curriculum?”
Shin remained still, going through tai chi moves in her head, while a brief thought teased her about being expelled. Worse, about being arrested. She almost sighed in relief as Brigit spoke up callously, “If we wanted th’ lass dead, she would be, ma’am.”
Miss Nordlingen regarded the setter for a long moment, then said, “I’m quite certain that she would, Brigit. Since you spoke, why don’t you tell me what happened.”
Brigit looked a bit flustered. “But, Miss Nordlingen, Liberty – “
“Was smart enough to keep her mouth shut.” The feline never raised her voice, but the statement was like the snap of a whip. “Now, your story is?”
Brigit took a breath, and told the whole story. Shin listened as the Irish girl revealed everything, including how they’d managed to conceal Patricia from Miss Cardroy.
Miss Nordlingen stopped her at that point, and told them that Miss Cardroy had indeed noticed that there were five in a dorm meant to house four. How, they’d have to figure out for themselves – if they didn’t get expelled. “Continue,” the feline ordered.
The red-furred canine recounted how Patricia had finally had enough and had insulted all of them in turn, giving a short tremor of suppressed anger as she said what the prairie dog had called her. “So we jumped her,” she concluded. “Honest, we didn’ mean any harm. We were just angry.”
Miss Nordlingen didn’t appear impressed by the attempt at contrition. “I can see where Patricia’s lack of tact put her in a bad situation,” she said as she leaned back in her chair. “To so bluntly tell not one, but four mad wolves that their lives were based on lies is bad enough. But to do so within their own den - that shows an extreme lack of self preservation. Still, she may have been basing her decision to do so on the mistaken belief that you four were civilized. Something I am afraid that you have apparently failed to manage. No matter, there will be extra course work for all of you. How to act civilized within a civilized context for you four, basic self preservation for Patricia. If she remains a student.” At that moment, Mrs. Oelabe came in and a brief, low-voiced conversation ensued.
Shin started thinking as fast as she could, assessing and discarding alternatives in the event she found herself outside the fence by the end of the day. She could always get a job at the Maha Kahuna, she reflected, although it would be a pale shadow of what she had hoped to accomplish.
Briefly she thought of the others, then discarded them. Best to think of her own fate.
But the fugitive thought remained.
Then, as suddenly as it came, the clouds lifted. Mrs. Oelabe and two third year students had searched the area and concluded that it had, in fact, been an accident. Of course, their hiding place had been found, but there were others.
Interestingly, Miss Nordlingen spoke briefly with the priestess, finally asking her to see “if any of them were worth trying to civilize.” Shin almost bridled at that.
The mouse looked at Tatiana, and from the corner of her eye Shin saw her smile at the sable. Could this be the friend Tatiana stays with? she asked herself, deciding that she would try to find out.
Then the mouse stood looking up at her, and she returned the gaze, trying to hide her thoughts. Although she tried, the priestess was good, and she gave a soft laugh. “Very much yes,” she said in a peculiarly rough voice. “She will one day be a bright light to this place, against her own will, I think.” The mouse moved on to Brigit, leaving Shin wondering what the hell the priestess had meant by that crack.
After lunch the punishments were passed down.
“Two weeks!” Shin barked, throwing herself onto her bed and pounding her fists on the mattress. “Two weeks of restriction, extra classes – “
“And we have to tutor Patricia,” Brigit said in a disgusted tone. Liberty just sat on her bed and glowered at Tatiana while the sable looked at her curiously.
“What you think, ah, that priestess meant by what she said to you, Liberty?” the Russian asked.
“How the hell should I know?” The New Havenite snapped. “Primitive mumbo-jumbo … I think,” she added.
“Tatiana?” Miss Nordlingen asked from the doorway, and as the sable walked to the door the tutor added, “I won’t usually come this close to a wolves’ den,” and noted with satisfaction how ears and tails drooped at the jibe, “but this is for you.” She handed a slip of paper to the sable and left.
“What is it? Expulsion papers?” Liberty asked hopefully.
Tatiana looked up from it. “A pass, for extra training.”
“What!?” Shin said indignantly, sitting up as the Russian got a flashlight from her equipment and walked out. “She gets to go out, and we stay here on restriction? Sai li niang!” she screamed, cursing at Tatiana as the sable went down the stairs.
The sun shone brightly on Lima’s central plaza as the man sat and sipped coffee at a small café table. A copy of the London Times sat on the table, the crossword completed in ink. The canine’s usually long and shaggy fur had been trimmed very close to his skin, and he wore a loose Panama suit, wide-brimmed fedora and dark glasses. He was a great deal taller than the usual café patrons, but his money was good, and he didn’t act like a tourist.
A young llama came running up to him. “Señor?” he asked.
“Si?” the canine replied, and the youngster handed him a small envelope. The wolfhound flicked it open, studied it, and handed the llama two one-peso coins.
The boy’s eyes lit up at the size of the tip. “Gracias, Señor!” he said, and ran off before the tall canine had a chance to change his mind.
Phillip McCafferty, onetime dentist, sometime explosives expert and (very) occasional safecracker, stood and dropped a one-peso tip on the table. His connection to Acapulco was due to leave in two hours, which gave him time to stop by the cathedral to pray (as he always did) for the destruction of the British Empire.