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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)Chapter Seventy-three
Brigit, to Shin’s dismay, had insisted that she and the others spend at least part of the day following the squirrel around once she arrived on South Island. “If she comes,” the Irish girl said firmly. “She might get caught leavin’ Songmark, an’ we’d have ta go ‘round an’ take down th’ traps anyway.” It was a sensible idea, Shin reflected after thinking it over. It wouldn’t do to have someone get hurt and have the tutors catch wind of it (as they invariably would).
Her suggestion was voted upon and passed, and soon after one water-taxi driver reported seeing a yellow-furred squirrel disembarking, Red Dorm headed into the jungle.
Hao watched them go, his banded tail wagging slightly. “What’s got your blood warming, Hao?” Peng-wum asked, studying his younger brother critically over his mango juice.
“Hm? Oh, nothing,” the younger panda said, and refused to say anything else.
“Nothing, huh?” Peng-wum snorted, raising a brow. “Come on, little brother. Which one is it?”
Hao shrugged. “I guess it’s from being with Mei, and now with Anna,” he said, “but I find canines really attractive.”
His older brother nodded. Hao had been very enamored of Chang Mei several years ago, and when the cute little Pekingese had left abruptly to go back to her family in Hong Kong he had been quite upset. And now he was seeing Anna. “So, who was it?” he asked as he returned to his lunch.
Hao smiled. “That Irish girl,” was all he said.
“I have to give Fang credit,” Shin whispered several hours later as she and the other girls made their way through the thick jungle. “High marks for originality.” The others nodded gleefully.
So far the squirrel had proven to be quite incapable of being discouraged. She had followed the clues through almost impenetrable jungle, as well as a swamp that was fairly stiff with leeches, thickets of briars and other hazards while swarms of biting flies who obviously thought her ears were the latest in haute cuisine pestered her. She had also found a good number of the more obvious traps that Fang had placed. After she had passed, Shin and the others would disarm the unused traps so that unwary travelers would not get hurt.
The trail brushed the outskirts of a pig farm, and the four stopped. Although ‘Miss Rote’ was a keen observer, the senior girls had all taken high marks in the How Not To Be Seen course, so they took cover and watched as the squirrel stopped to ponder her latest challenge.
A very obvious tree had been bent over, and a dusting of leaves in a too-regular circle betrayed the presence of a snare. The squirrel triggered it, and watched with some satisfaction as the rope noose exploded skyward in a flurry of leaf litter. After taking another look at her map, Miss Rote moved on.
There was a snap! and she suddenly jerked sideways, falling to the ground as the real snare caught her left foot. The rope noose on her ankle tightened and she was pulled under the farm’s boundary fence and straight into the pig’s mud wallow. For an instant, the only thing to be seen was her yellow-furred tail; then her head came up out of the stinking muck and she started wiping mud from her face.
Tatiana had pulled up her shirt and stuffed it in her mouth to keep herself from laughing, and Liberty was holding both paws over her muzzle as Brigit just gaped and Shin whispered, “Oh yes, very high marks . . . I think Fang deserves a treat . . .”
After washing off as best she could in a nearby stream, the squirrel continued on, looking for the ‘staging area’ marked on the map that she had recovered from Red Dorm’s wastepaper basket. The others followed her at a discreet distance.
Several other noose snares were encountered, but she was on her guard for them now; she cut down a tall stalk of bamboo into a pole roughly six feet long and swept the ground around the immediate vicinity of each trap. As she walked along, she raised the staff to brush aside a large spiderweb.
A tree limb over her head, held in place by the tiny wire that the spider had spun its web around, released and smacked into the side of a hornet’s nest. As an angry buzz filled the air, Miss Rote looked up in surprise, then cast about wildly for an escape route. A gleam of water to her right beckoned, and she started running with the hornets in hot pursuit.
The water was a small pond, and she flung herself into it only to discover that the depth of the water had been deceptive. It was only a foot deep, covering perhaps twice that depth of mud. Nevertheless she tried to get as far under as possible to escape the small cloud of angry insects that were chasing her.
Liberty lowered a pair of field glasses and passed them to Tatiana as she remarked, “This is great fun. Great idea, Shin.”
“I do have them from time to time, Liberty,” Shin said as her ears perked. At least one hornet had found its mark, judging from the yelp and subsequent thrashing sounds that reached them. The others snickered.
“At least mud would ease pain of the hornet stings,” Tatiana said, grinning widely. “What’s next, Shin?”
“I think we’ll see when she gets out of the pond.”
Nearly ten minutes later a hollow reed stirred, then Miss Rote came to the surface, looking around warily as she searched for more hornets. Finding none, she got out of the pond and started removing leeches from under her fur and clothes. “Ugh, I hate leeches,” Brigit whispered, and the others nodded silently before easing into the thicker undergrowth.
Miss Rote was looking somewhat less than her usual natty self as she picked her way through the jungle. Finally the broad grassy field she had been looking for could be seen through the intervening trees. She squeezed around several, then stopped and looked at her tail while touching her headfur with one paw.
The fur on her head and tail was matted down with tree sap in a long streak, and a series of long, thin slashes in one tree trunk gleamed wetly. She was actually heard to growl as she jerked free and stamped out onto the field.
“I’m surprised she made it this far,” Liberty whispered. “Pretty good for a soft little bourgeois. Should we head back?”
“Wait a minute,” Shin said as Miss Rote stooped to pick something up. At the incoherent cry of rage, the red panda girl grinned. “Now we head back.”
The squirrel still held the crumpled note in her paw as she stormed onto the grounds of the Maha Kahuna. She was a mess, her yellow fur and ‘adventuring suit’ grimy with ground-in mud and leaf litter, and the tree sap in her headfur had gained a crest. Fang had engineered one last surprise for the squirrel, as the path had suddenly dropped out from under her feet and landed her in yet another mudhole, this one covered in dead leaves.
The note had been the last straw, as she had realized that she’d been duped. The message was simple: Fooled you. At Maha Kahuna Hotel. She stamped past a startled groundskeeper to the beach and stopped, breathing heavily.
Shin, Liberty, Tatiana and Brigit were all reclining on lounge chairs, dressed in swimsuits and looking relaxed and cheerful. Tatiana looked up and raised her sunglasses, blinking at the sight.
The squirrel confronted the four senior girls, panting from her exertions and eyes glaring angrily. “I,” she said, “I’m calling . . . the police . . .“
“What for?” Liberty asked accusingly, and took a sip of her rum punch.
“I accuse you … all of you … of conspiring to – “
“We’re not conspiring to do anything,” Shin declared as she got up from her lounge chair. “However, we are going to do something, Rote, and that’s take you straight back to Songmark. You know first years aren’t allowed out without a pass.” She advanced on the squirrel, and reached out to grab her wrist. “Come along quietly now.”
Apparently Miss Rote hadn’t been interested in coming along quietly, and it took Shin and Tatiana a few minutes to get her down and tied up without hurting her. Liberty and Brigit got dressed and took over watching her while the other two got into more presentable clothes. They then gathered up the squirming squirrel and headed for the water taxi stand.
“You should have been there to see it,” Shin giggled the next morning over breakfast. “She kept screaming about us taking over Spontoon, and how she was going to stop us if it was the last thing she was going to do.” She laughed again at the memory, adding, “And now her whole dorm’s on restriction, while we get points added for finding her and turning her in.”
Shin had returned to the hotel around dinnertime the previous day after dropping off the squirrel. Since the next day was Sunday, the other three members of Red Dorm had gone their separate ways. Brigit had church, Liberty wanted to look for yet another book, and Tatiana had gone off to – well, wherever it was Tatiana went to on weekends. The red panda had eaten a frugal dinner and promptly dragged Fang off to their home. The Manchurian tiger still had not made an appearance, and as Shin mopped up the last bit of her breakfast her free paw caressed the bitten spots around her neck. “Of course,” she added, “I also hope she learned not to underestimate us, or automatically think we’re up to no good.”
“Oh yes, perish the thought that you four might be up to something. Well, now that you’ve had your fun,” Peng-wum asked with a chuckle, “what are you planning to do for the rest of the weekend?”
“Relax,” his sister said firmly, “relax and – say, how about a card game after supper? I haven’t played cards in months. The others all think I’ll cheat.” She frowned. “But we’ll have to make it an early supper, so I can get back to Songmark before the gates close.”
“Okay,” Peng-wum said as Fang walked – or, more properly, staggered – into the hotel’s dining room. “Well, you look sort of worn out, Fang. What happened?”
“Your damned sister,” the tiger growled as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. He sipped at the coffee and made a face, then stretched and sighed as his back popped in two places. “Shin, you have to stop doing that.”
“What?” she asked in an attempt at innocence.
“That - thing you do with your paws,” Fang said pointedly. “Stop doing it, or we might not have any kids after you graduate.”
“All right, dearest,” she cooed, patting his cheek as she singsonged, “Anything my widdle kitty wants.” She laughed as he growled at her. “Anyway,” she said, “I’m going to be relaxing down at the beach. You boys will have to look after yourselves,” and with that she stood and walked out of the dining room.
Later that day the dinner dishes had been removed and the table cleared. Apart from a few early diners, they had the room to themselves as a rack of poker chips was produced and Fang made a great show out of breaking the seal on a new deck of Tricycle cards. He gave them to Peng-wum to shuffle, sticking his tongue out at his wife when she looked at him indignantly. As the older Ni brother dealt out four hands of five card draw, Hao said, “I wonder when Anna’s getting back.”
“She probably found a movie playing or something,” Shin said as she picked up her cards and threw a white chip into the pot. She regarded her cards again and glared at Peng-wum. “Thanks a lot, brother,” she said. “What did you do? Learn something from a priestess that can freeze a deck solid?”
Her older brother merely grinned as he, Hao and Fang added to the pot. He checked his own cards; a jack and two threes. Pulling the two worthless cards from his hand he laid them facedown and tossed two red chips into the pot. The others followed suit, and Fang dealt out the cards.
A feline woman entered the dining room then, and walked over to Hao. His nose twitched as she approached, and he glanced behind him as he laid his cards face-down. “Hello, Mikala,’ he said.
She looked unhappy about something, or maybe scared as she asked, “Hao, can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Sure.” He stood up from the table and walked over to the far side of the dining room, while Fang wagged an admonitory finger at Shin’s attempt to peek at her younger brother’s cards.
The feline and the red panda spoke for a few minutes in voices too low for either of them to catch, then Mikala left – quickly – while Hao sat back down. “Come on, Hao,” Shin said, “it’s your turn to bet.”
He didn’t touch his cards, but turned his head to look at her. She took one look at his eyes and her weight shifted, ready to bolt out of her chair. Fang and Peng-wum saw it too, a cold black look in Hao’s eyes, like some dead thing that had suddenly come to life.
It was a look like a blood-maddened shark’s, and the others had to strain to hear him as he whispered, “I’ve been betrayed.”