Luck of the Dragon: Upping the Ante© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Come on, Shin, you can do this,” Tatiana urged as she and the other members of Red Dorm stepped out onto the Eastern Island dock. Tatiana was leader of the dorm for this day, and she gave the competition a glance before turning back to the red panda. “It’s not like you have not done this before.”
Wo Shin gave the sable an irritated look as she stretched in her swimming suit. “We’ve all done this, Tatiana,” she said. “That’s not what’s bothering me.” She jerked a thumb at her opponent.
Much to the amusement of their tutors, Red Dorm had challenged the others to a series of competitions in an effort to gain a points advantage over the other dorms. Currently, they were ahead by a slim margin after a quarter-staff match that had left Liberty victorious but bruised. Her opponent, however, was in bed with a mild concussion.
There was only one more match, a swim from Eastern Island to Moon Island for representatives from the two top-scoring dorms. It wasn’t far, there were no strong currents at that time of day, and there were two water taxis contracted to watch for swimmers in distress.
Unfortunately, Shin had drawn Rumiko to swim against, and the Okinawan-born canine gave the red panda a most un-Japanese smirk as she doffed her light robe and gave it to her dorm-mate. The Chinese girl suppressed a growl. Taunts could come later – if she won.
The two of them submitted to an inspection by Miss Blande before taking their marks on the dock. The others all stood well back to avoid any hint of cheating.
The tutor said, “Go,” and the two girls dove into the water.
Shin paced herself, feeling the one thing she dreaded; her thickly-furred tail growing sodden. It always dragged on her, and she hadn’t won any swimming competitions in the past year. She always finished, she just didn’t win.
Oiling her fur had been considered, as the waterproofing might have prevented the water from dragging on her. After some discussion (without a fight breaking out) the idea was dropped. It might have looked like cheating, and despite everyone’s expectations Shin was determined not to cheat.
The Japanese girl had struck out for the neighboring island with a will, reaching the marker and starting back a few seconds before Shin arrived. Rumiko paused to look at Shin before carrying on.
It was the look that infuriated Shin.
There was no way, no way in Hell, by all her ancestors, that she’d let that little tramp win.
She touched the marker and started heading back, throwing all her strength into her swimming. Fang had joked about her muscles the last time they were together.
Well, now she was going to put them to the test.
As the two of them neared the finish Shin could hear Liberty, Brigit and Tatiana yelling at her, urging her on, and she pushed herself harder. She had drawn up beside the other girl, and as the finish neared she put all her strength into an impressive butterfly stroke, driving her arms deep into the water and passing Rumiko just in time to touch the marker.
Shin rolled over on her back, floating as she coughed and gasped, getting her breath back as Rumiko bobbed nearby glaring at her. She shook water from her ears and could hear cheering, and as she straightened up she saw Liberty and Brigit extending their paws to her to help her up onto the dock.
The red panda climbed out of the water and stood squeezing water from her fur as Miss Blande walked over. She and the other Red Dorm members stood straight as the tutor looked them over for a moment, then nodded. “Red Dorm wins on points,” was all she said, and walked off.
Shin smiled, feeling the almost-pleasurable ache in her shoulders as the others cheered and gathered around her. She accepted a towel from Brigit and started drying off.
The reward for winning the most points was a weekend pass and chits good for a soda or ice cream at Song Sodas, the small sweet shop on the school grounds. After getting a shower and dressing, Shin was looking forward to a dish of ice cream.
As she walked in, Miss Wildford opened the door to a small side room and beckoned to her. A gesture like that from one of the tutors was not to be ignored or disobeyed, but Shin felt her ears try to lay back. What was so important that it couldn’t wait? “Yes, ma’am?” she asked politely as the door closed.
“Shin, I’ve been looking over what you submitted a week ago as a business plan,” the oddly patterned feline said. “I was wondering why you chose to do this.”
The red panda smiled. “Instead of a criminal enterprise, ma’am?”
“Don’t be pert, Shin,” the older woman admonished. “But I am interested in why.”
Shin explained the reasoning behind her choice of business plan, and while the tutor still gave her a disbelieving look she seemed to accept her decision. Wildford nodded and walked out.
The dish of Durian Surprise with chocolate syrup that Shin tucked into tasted amazingly satisfying.
Nailani tsked at her husband. “Hold still,” she scolded Peng-wum as she finished cleaning the wound on his forearm. The hoe he had been using had broken, and the shattered handle had badly scratched his arm. “If I don’t get this taken care of, it could leave a scar.” She grinned at him. “And I’d hate to have anything spoil your good looks.”
He laughed at her teasing and suppressed a wince as she daubed the long, shallow cut with a paste of medicinal herbs and started to wrap it with a strip of cloth. “I suppose you’d have to find a new husband, then,” he teased back. “Can’t have an ugly husband now, can you?”
She giggled, her tail twitching as she tied off the bandage and kissed him on the nose. “True, I can’t,” she chuckled, “and I do have a few replacements in mind if I have to leave you.”
They both laughed at that, and were interrupted only by Mikilani’s hungry cry. Nailani sat back, gently lifted the crying child from his crib and brought him to her breast. The child settled down almost immediately and Nailani sighed. “I’m going to be very happy when he’s weaned,” she remarked.
“Hey, he’s letting us sleep nights,” Peng-wum pointed out. “Consider that a blessing.”
She nodded, gazing down fondly at the infant before glancing up at her husband. “Will you be going back to Krupmark soon?” she asked.
“Not if I can help it,” he said. “Father and Mother have things well in paw, and we shouldn’t have any more guests for a while.” He kissed her. “And I missed you a lot while I was away.”
“I know.” She smiled and dipped one ear as she said, “Not that I’m trying to get rid of you so soon, love, but Father asked about you earlier today.”
“Yes. They need another set of paws out on the fishing boats. Tevake took sick.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious.”
Nailani shrugged carefully to avoid disturbing her baby. “A fever, some chills. He’ll be okay, but they need help on his boat. Would you be interested?”
Peng-wum grinned. “Of course I’ll help. I’ll talk to Jason after supper.”
The sounds of tools striking metal and an occasional snatch of song in Chinese carried under the shrill cries of gulls as the Ni Family’s accountant and principal aide walked along the dock and stopped at one mooring. “Hao?” At the sound of his name the young red panda turned and smiled at Clarence. The lion nodded pleasantly and said, “Your parents wanted to have a word with you.”
“Any idea what they want, Clarence?” Hao asked, stepping off the float of his Nin Hai. He had two of the engine’s seven cylinder heads open, checking the condition of the gaskets and seals before using the biplane again. Nearby the family’s other two aircraft bobbed serenely at their moorings.
“They didn’t tell me,” the onetime sergeant-major replied, flicking his tufted tail as Hao drew an oilskin tarp over the engine to protect it from the elements before wiping his paws with a rag. The two of them then headed into the offices and up the stairs.
“Where’s Marco?” Hao asked as he walked into the office. It wasn’t like the ferret to be missing from his usual post guarding the door.
Clarence replied, “He’s close by, taking care of some business. Don’t worry, there’s always a footpad standing by.”
Hao nodded and saw that his father and mother were seated together at Hei’s desk. “What’s the matter?”
Peng smiled and waved to her son to come closer. “A package arrived from Hong Kong, addressed to you,” and she held up a bulky envelope. “It’s from Chu tse-ming.”
“That was quick,” Hao said as he took the envelope and studied the seal on the package. There were three seals on the flap of the envelope, and he blinked at two of the small wax chops. At least two sets of paws had touched and approved of the correspondence; the Black Dragon Tong, and the Tong that he was a member of, the Red Talons. The third chop proclaimed that the envelope had come from the matchmaker.
He quirked a brow at his father, who nodded. Hei had noted the two Tong chops as well. “Open it,” Hei urged, reaching out to take his wife’s paw.
The younger red panda nodded, carefully breaking all three seals before flicking out a knife and slitting the flap open. Two smaller envelopes fell out, one addressed to his parents and one for himself. Hao passed one envelope to Hei while he opened the one addressed to him.
The contents included a letter of introduction from the matchmaker, a short biography of the young woman, and a paw-tinted photograph that, a note on the back asserted, had been taken only a few weeks earlier.
The girl’s name was Hu Xiu, a daughter of the family that was the largest contributor to the Black Dragon in Hong Kong. She was the same age as he was, and had a good education. Hao’s tail flicked at one passage, and he shook his head and studied the picture.
The focus was sharp and clear, and showed a young red panda girl with a pleasant smile, dressed in a school blazer. Her paws were slim, matching her figure, and her headfur was an immaculately-styled mass of curls.
He found himself returning the smile.
“She’s certainly pretty,” he remarked half to himself. There was a smaller note written on the back of Chu’s letter, in very stylish calligraphy:
Esteemed Ni Hao,
My honored parents have been contacted by the esteemed matchmaker Chu tse-ming, and after seeing your picture and hearing about you I have expressed to my parents the wish that we both should meet.
Hao’s muzzle twisted into a grimace as he read the note. She seemed a bit eager to meet him.
A bit too eager.
Three to one she’s twice my age and three times my weight, he thought to himself.