© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(Rosie Baumgartner and Chauncey Fleetik courtesy of M. Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of Eric O. Costello. Thanks!)
(Keith Lawton and the Chang Brothers courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
By the time he arrived at the Great Pagoda with his parents, Hao’s nervousness was in danger of becoming visible even to people outside his immediate family. He hadn’t managed to see enough of the young woman he was supposed to marry yet, and he hadn’t heard her speak either.
She was playing a traditional role to the hilt.
And it was starting to make him more than a little jittery.
The two families met in the restaurant’s lobby and allowed both Chang brothers to escort them to the private dining room.
“Hao?” his father asked as soon as the doors closed. “Come here, please.”
He walked over to where his parents stood with Xiu’s mother and father. Their daughter was turned away slightly so he still couldn’t see her face, but she was now dressed in a blue watered silk gown with dragons worked in silver thread at the collar and sleeves. Her headfur was gathered into a single long braid, and a fan in her paw fluttered to dispel the early-evening heat.
The fan also obscured her features.
“Hao,” Hei said, “I have the honor of presenting Hu Renmin and his wife, Hu Qing.”
The nineteen year old bowed.
“And this,” Renmin said, “is my daughter, Xiu.”
Xiu turned, lowering her fan demurely until their eyes met. She closed the fan with an audible snap before dropping a perfect curtsy, back held ramrod-straight as Hao bowed.
As they exchanged these courtesies, they looked at each other.
She certainly is pretty.
The picture was close – he does look charming.
Well, are you going to say something?
Say something, girl.
“I . . . am honored to meet you, Xiu,” and Hao extended a paw.
“And I,” she said in a smooth alto voice, “am honored to meet you as well, Ni Hao,” and she took his paw in hers. Her grip was firm but not strong, her paw and fingers fine-boned and elegant.
He had to remind himself he was shaking her paw, so he concentrated on keeping the grip firm but not strong enough to break bones.
He had trouble looking away from her eyes, which were a shade of hazel that wasn’t usual for red pandas, but was quite beguiling.
She matched his grip on her paw and found her gaze locked on a pair of deep brown eyes.
My, what pretty eyes he’s got.
“Great sense of style,” Nailani whispered behind her paw to her husband, and Peng-wum nodded.
“Perhaps we should go to the table and have our meal,” Renmin said. “Hao? Perhaps you would like to escort my daughter to her seat?”
He almost didn’t hear the older man; finally he stopped shaking her paw and looked up at him. “Hmm?”
Renmin and Hei both chuckled, and the request was repeated.
“Oh! Oh, sure,” and Hao held out his arm for Xiu, who rested a paw on his forearm as he walked toward the table. He helped her into her seat and took a place opposite her as a list of special dishes was passed around.
By the time dinner was over, everyone had agreed that the Chang brothers had outdone themselves yet again. The private dining room was spotless and the staff prompt and precise. The food was superb, and the heads of the two families personally congratulated the two ferrets and their staff on the excellence of the food and service.
Hao sipped at his after-dinner drink of whiskey and water (very little of the latter, and entirely too much of the former) and stepped out onto a balcony. Below him crowds of furs still milled about under the mellow glow of streetlamps. Out in the harbor the cruise liners swung at anchor, outlined in lights, and a flickering beacon and a drone signaled that another plane was coming in for a landing at Eastern Island.
He whirled, one paw reaching under his suit jacket before he recognized the voice.
Xiu was standing there, looking at him with only a slight widening of the eyes at his reaction.
Hao let his paw drop away and made a show of brushing at his jacket. Have to remind her not to sneak up on a guy like that, he thought. “Hello, Xiu. What do you think of Spontoon so far?” It was a lame question, but he had to say something.
She too had been drinking, since the tall glass with the remains of a Tom Collins inside it was still in her paw. She set the glass on a small table beside the balcony rail and replied quietly, “Apart from what I’ve seen this afternoon, Hao, I really can’t tell.” She gave him a smile as she added, “I’d appreciate a tour tomorrow, if that’s possible.”
He nodded a bit jerkily. “Sure, we can do that. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast?”
“That’d be very nice,” she said, looking at him as she spoke.
He felt his ears getting warm.
The next morning’s trip around the lagoon included Qing and Peng, and the two mothers chatted while Hao pointed out the various sights to Xiu. As for the rest of the family, Shin and Fang were back at their business and Nailani was back at Pangai with young Mikilani.
Hao pointed at a collection of utilitarian buildings climbing up the southern slopes of Moon Island. A submarine, two patrol boats and a crash boat were docked in the harbor. “That’s the Naval Syndicate base,” he explained. He looked back at her, the breeze whipped up by the speed of the boat causing her to keep a paw on her sun hat. “You okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said cheerfully, “and the breeze is heavenly in this heat. But I thought we’d be taking the tour by plane,” she chuckled.
He chuckled with her. “I guess we could, but there’s too many planes here for Speed Week just now. I’d have to file a flight plan, and then we’d have to wait. A boat’s simpler.”
Very practical, she thought, thinking back on the dossier she’d read.
Peng-wum looked up from his desk and stood as his father entered the office with Hu Renmin in tow. Outside, tourists passed by, intent on finding a good vantage point to watch a flying demonstration by the Italian team. “Father, Mr. Hu, welcome. I have the books ready for the two of you to look over, when you wish. Tea?”
“That would be fine, Peng-wum,” Renmin said as the two older men sat down. Tea was brought and served as the first set of ledgers was opened.
After nearly a half-hour Renmin looked up. “You’re doing very well. These investments – “ he turned pages, a finger tracing down each entry “ – are pretty diverse.”
“That was planned, Sir,” Peng-wum said. “The more diversity, the better.”
Two very blatant (and graphic) propositions.
Four written messages of congratulation, extolling her attributes as well as the ‘skills of the artist.’
And that was just what the morning’s mail had contained.
The marriage proposal from another woman was the last straw.
Shin stormed out of the Maha Kahuna’s office, determined to get to the bottom of this.
The two families had their lunch in their rooms, and Hao looked up as a knock sounded. Hei walked up to answer the door and Xiu and Renmin stepped in. “Xiu suggested that she and Hao spend some together to get to know each other better,” her father said.
“Sounds like an excellent idea,” Hei said. “Hao?”
“Sure. I think we need to.”
“Good,” Renmin said. “What do you say, Hei? Shall we old folks leave and let the youngsters talk?” he asked as Peng chuckled. “We can all sit down and talk over some plans.”
“Excellent idea.” Peng gathered up her small purse and walked out with Hei and Renmin. The door closed behind them, and there was an awkward pause as the two young red pandas looked at each other.
Finally Xiu sat down and said, “Your photograph did you no justice, Hao.” She smoothed out a fold in her pastel orange sundress.
Hao’s ears perked and his tail slid into his lap as he also sat down. “Oh?”
“Yes. You look far more mature.” She looked up at her intended, lowered her eyes and studied her paws.
More mature? I’m only nineteen. I don’t look that old – or do I? Hao wondered. He cleared his throat self-consciously. “Well, ah, your picture – well, you look prettier in person than you did in it.”
A coy smile was her response. “Thank you.”
That seemed to break the ice a bit, and Hao ventured, “I read that you attended a religious school in Hong Kong.”
“Yes. Saint Mary’s.” Her voice was level and her tone conversational, but she turned her head and spat as she said the name.
Hao’s eyebrows rose at her reaction. “I guess you didn’t have a good time.”
“You guess right.” She unnecessarily smoothed her skirt again, a nervous gesture. “The one thing you learn about British schools is that they try really hard to get foreigners to conform to their ideas. Do you know what they insisted I call myself?”
Hao cocked his head. “Well, ‘Grace’ is the same word as ‘Xiu’ – and both are very pretty names,” he added, thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to compliment her.
She had a pretty smile.
“Thank you, Hao, but they also reversed my name order and ordered me to say my surname wrong. ‘Grace Hu,’” she growled, pronouncing the last word as ‘Hugh.’
“Ugh. That’s bad.”
She laughed. “Bad wasn’t the word. So, tell me about yourself. Did you go to school here?”
“Yeah, to Althing Gate. I didn’t finish there, though; came up a half-term short.” He shrugged, trying not to sound defensive about the difference between his education and hers. “Business, you know. I did take a few night courses at the Technical High School. Mostly in mechanics.”
“And I’m sure you learn a lot of things at work that they’d never teach you at school,” she remarked with a smile. “Don’t you worry that someday you’ll get caught? You know, doing business,” and she winked at him.
He grinned, finding himself warming up to this young woman in a way he’d never managed with Lin, or Sally, or even Fatima.
Or even . . . Anna.
He shut off any thought of the Russian woman.
“Well,” he said smoothly, “I’ve been lucky so far, but there’s always a risk. I look at it this way – it’s a risky life no matter what. We could be wiped out financially, or my plane might get engine trouble and crash, any number of things.” He gave a tiny shrug. “I might even get run over crossing the street today. As Mother would say, it’s joss. Either your joss is good or it’s not.”
She matched his smile. “Very philosophical.”