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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Upping the Ante© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber, Inspector Stagg courtesy of EO Costello, and Rosie Baumgartner courtesy of Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
Two days after the Year of the Ox began, a flying boat touched down and headed for the Eastern Island terminal. It was a routine flight from Tillamook, and among the disembarking passengers was a tall whitetail buck in a bandbox-new light tan suit with a slightly svelte cheetah in a tan dress sporting a wildflower pattern holding his paw.
The couple hailed a water taxi as soon as they had been passed through Customs and the driver was given instructions to take them to Meeting Island. Inspector Stagg had returned from his vacation, and no amount of persuasion from Rosie would stop him from immediately reporting to his new superior that he was again fit for duty. Not that she put up much of a protest, as she had business of her own there.
As the taxi made its way through the ship anchorage north of Moon Island, Rosie noticed a water taxi flying a small Constabulary pennant and a swallow-tailed red pennant. The signal flag usually meant that there was dangerous cargo aboard; of course, that could cover any variety of things, from aviation gasoline to people. The taxi was tied up to the gangway of a freighter, and as she watched a fur wearing pawcuffs emerged from the smaller vessel and was escorted up the gangway. Even at this distance, she had no trouble recognizing the figure in the ill-fitting suit. Ex-Chief Pickering was leaving Spontoon for prison.
She glanced at Franklin. Had he seen him? No; he was looking down at his hooves, doubtless going over in his head all of the things that needed to be done when he returned to his office. The cheetah resolved that she wouldn’t tell him, either. It served the fox right, after all.
As the water taxi moved off toward Meeting Island, the taxi tied up to the freighter lowered its red pennant, while a duplicate was hoisted from the mast of the freighter as it prepared to get underway. Its new passenger, soon to be Prisoner #37-095-S, would work as a member of the crew while on the trip to Tillamook.
Tatiana burst into the dorm room, her fur almost standing on end and carrying a pawful of thick envelopes. As she closed the door Liberty asked, “What’s got you so riled, Tatiana? Discover that Iosif Starling dresses up in women’s clothes?”
Much to everyone’s surprise, the sable didn’t respond to the Trotskyite’s jibe. “Mail,” she gasped out, tossing one fat packet to each of the others, and hurriedly slitting her own open with a claw.
Shin looked at the postmark on hers, and when she saw that the letter came from Seathl she started ripping it open. She unfolded the papers within and sat down on her bed, reading carefully. The others, she noted from the corner of her eye, were doing the same.
The papers were the application for their commercial pilot’s licenses, and the red panda felt her mouth go dry as she read them over. This was the most visible sign that she was actually progressing in her classes, and meant that soon she could fly a plane legally again without having one of the tutors constantly on her tail.
“Hmm. Our application fees are already paid,” Shin observed, “but we have to get to Seathl ourselves.”
“Seathl?” Tatiana said. “I’m going to Vladivostok – is on the papers.” She flourished her application and smiled cheerfully.
Brigit looked disgusted. “Th’ Lord Himself’s testin’ me,” she grumbled. “I’m off ta New Penzance fer my license, with all those bloody English . . . “ She lapsed into a moody silence, poring over her application.
Liberty and Shin looked at each other. “Don’t tell me,” Shin said. “New Haven?”
“No,” the half-coyote said, “Seathl. They’re not true socialists, but it’s better than anywhere else, I suppose.”
Shin frowned. “Well, I guess we’ll be traveling together then, because I have to go there too.”
The New Havenite promptly looked offended. “No way,” she said flatly, and then her eyes narrowed. “You’re not traveling with me.”
“I have no intention of traveling with you, Liberty,” Shin bristled. “You can muck around in holds and shovel coal on a dingy freighter if you like. I’m going to take some money from my bank account and go in style.” She gave the canine an obscene gesture, and Liberty’s hackles rose.
All four of them held perfectly still as they waited for the fight to start, then relaxed as the door to their room opened. Miss Blande said, “We will want those applications filled out properly and sent out as quickly as possible,” she said. “You will be instructed on what you need to bring with you, of course. Now, get some sleep. You may be called later tonight.”
She closed the door and three of the girls looked quizzically at each other. Shin got up, went to the window and stared up at the sky. “What’s wrong, Shin?” Brigit asked.
The red panda sighed and breathed a curse in Chinese as she stepped back from the window. “That time of year again.”
It took a moment, since they had all had a busy year with many distractions, then Liberty said, “Crabs?”
Shin nodded. “Crabs.”
Tatiana and Brigit both blinked. Land crabs on parts of Main Island emerged from their hiding places and went to the sea to breed at about the same time each year, depending on the phases of the moon. It was necessary to keep them away from cash crops as they marched, since they could strip a field in minutes. “We’d heard about that, when we were in first year, but I never – “ the Russian girl’s voice trailed off.
“We’d better get some sleep,” Shin said, headed for the bathroom, “because if we get called out to help we won’t be getting much rest for a while.” The others watched her go, then got up and followed her.
It was 10:30 by Brigit’s Bullova clock when the four of them were awakened by Miss Windlesham. The other second-years were being rousted from their beds, and the entire group was taken by water taxis to Main Island. There they were given stiff, heavy brooms and placed in the likely path of the migration.
The Moon was shining brightly, and Shin saw the first ones emerge from the underbrush near the farm she was stationed at. “They don’t look like much,” Liberty said as she swept the crustacean away from the fence.
“Well, there’s such a thing as safety in numbers,” Shin said as more crabs moved toward them. When she saw that Liberty seemed to be a bit tentative in sweeping the crabs aside, she offered, “Just think of them as capitalist wreckers.”
Liberty surprised her by saying “Thanks,” and set to her task with quite a bit more energy. The others were also energetically brushing the crabs along, channeling them down a lane so that they could get to the sea unimpeded.
One crab had attached itself to Shin’s broom, and as she removed it she yelped. The crab had decided to express his feelings on the matter, and had nipped her with a claw. She flung the crab into the road and kicked at it before returning to her task.
It was long and tiring work, and while the meals of crab soup were a welcome and savory treat, Shin realized that sleep would be much better. The red panda barely had the time to get out of her uniform before falling asleep on her bed. The rest of Red Dorm was already in their own beds, Tatiana snoring gently.
They were awakened again just after sundown to deal with another onslaught of crabs, and were only slightly cheered by the news that they should not have to do it again, as the Moon was no longer full. The crabs would breed, and find their way back to their burrows and hiding places inland. That morning, Shin felt that her head had hardly hit the pillow when they were being awakened again for classes.
Two weeks later they were ordered to gather up their first aid kits and some items of survival gear. Again, they joined the rest of their year in water taxis and were ferried over to Main Island, where they were briefed by their tutors and a grim-faced canine who was a member of the Spontoon Militia.
The annual military maneuvers generally started in late February, before Spontoon became too hot or too crowded with tourists. The Songmark students and members of the Guides were to act as villagers, reporting on the troop movements as the opposing force came ashore. The officer stressed that none of them were to take any direct action against the combined Rain Island/Tillamook force.
Red Dorm moved a few yards away and Liberty said, “No direct action – but there’s nothing that says we can’t take indirect action. Agreed?”
The others nodded, and Shin remarked, “We need to come up with a plan,” and her ears went down as the militia officer blew a whistle. The exercise started, and all four of them went into the woods.
Several hours later Liberty growled, “I don’t see why I have to do it.”
“It was your idea,” Brigit offered.
The half-coyote grumbled, “Why not Tatiana? She’s got a better figure than I do.”
“First time you ever admitted it,” the Russian sable said. The two glared at each other in the moonlight-dappled shadows.
Sensing a fight in the offing, Shin hissed, “Stop it, both of you. We’re all short on sleep, and it’s making us worse than usual. I’ll do it.” The others dispersed.
A small patrol, two Tillamook privates in their green and field gray uniforms paused as they entered a small grassy field between two farms. There was a woman there, dressed only in her fur and the bright moonlight. She was leaning back against a fencepost in a provocative pose, and the red panda coyly winked at the pair as she nibbled suggestively on a stalk of bamboo.
Illustration by O.T.Grey
One of the privates nudged the other, and took up a guard position as the other moved forward to take the woman prisoner. He had almost reached her when he heard a scuffle behind him. He turned to see that his partner was being disarmed and subdued by three other young women, and he turned toward the red panda just as she smiled and brought her knee up into his crotch. The canine went to his knees, and Shin slugged him across the chin, knocking him senseless.
“Next time,” Shin said to Liberty as she massaged feeling back into her paw, “you be the bait.” She spat and added, “I hate the taste of raw bamboo.”
Nearly a quarter-hour later, the rest of the invading column stopped in their tracks as they saw one of the two advance scouts. The unlucky fur was still alive, but had been stripped naked, tied to a tree as if crucified, and a note was tied to his paw. The message was brought to the force’s commander as the soldier was cut down.
The message was in Spontoonie, and read, “Come any further, and we’ll kill the other one.” Angered, the commander ordered his troops to fan out and search for any sign of the second private.
A short distance away the Tillamookan tried to squirm, but stopped as Brigit tapped him on the head meaningfully with a thick tree branch. “Ye aren’t gonna kill him, right? ‘Twould be against th’ rules,” she whispered.
Liberty shook her head. “No,” she whispered back, “that was just to see if we can scare them away.”
“So far it’s not working,” Tatiana opined from her vantage point up in a tree. “They’re looking for him.”
“It was your idea, Liberty,” Shin said. “What do you want to do with him?”
“Well, he is the invader here,” the New Havenite mused. “We have every right to kill him.” The soldier started to squirm again, soft sounds coming from his gagged mouth. “But we’re not allowed.”
A runner came back to the Tillamook commander and breathlessly gasped out that they had found the missing soldier, hanging upside down from a tree. As the commander was digesting this information, another runner came up with a report that someone was setting up traps in the column’s line of advance. Nothing that could cause injury, but it promised to be a long and nerve-wracking few days until the maneuvers ended.
“Father – “ Hao began, and subsided as Ni Hei raised a paw.
“I know, Son. But my mind’s made up. Things have calmed down enough here to make me feel safe in sending you to Spontoon. We have a cargo that needs to be taken to New Penzance, so you’ll take that odd plane of yours to Spontoon, pick up the cargo and carry it to its destination.”
Hao sat at the dinner table with his parents, and he toyed with his chopsticks as he listened. “Where to from there, Father?” he asked in a soft tone.
Peng regarded her youngest with a raised brow. When Hao started using that tone, an outburst was approaching. “Hao, is there anything wrong?” she asked, resting her paw on his.
“No, Mother,” he said with a reassuring smile. “I just disagree with Father that things have settled down enough. Is there anything that I need to bring back on the return trip?”
Hei laughed quietly. It always warmed his heart to see his children taking such an interest in the family’s welfare. It boded well for the family’s continuity. “Of course,” he said. “You’ll eventually pick up a cargo to bring back here. Nothing unlawful at all, but it could fetch a high price in the Thieves’ Bazaar, particularly after what happened over Christmas.” The older red panda picked up his soup bowl and spooned up some broth, then licked his lips and added, “But before you return, I want you to deliver a message to Kuo Han.”
“Okay,” Hao said, nodding to himself.