© 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!)
“Shi . . . spotted old woman . . . ancient crone . . . how DARE she . . . “ Shin spluttered as she returned to the hotel office. It had taken her one trip by water taxi and encountering a Huntress for an awkward and uncomfortable interview in order to find out the information that she needed.
An interview, incidentally, that required Shin to fend off several more Sapphic overtures by both the Huntress and a passing acquaintance of the feline’s.
“Well? What is it?” Fang asked.
She told him, and his ears drooped a bit.
“I saw that you had been trained by two of the monks who gave me Shaolin training,” Hao said after the silence returned and gradually grew a bit uncomfortable. “What happened to Master Kung?”
“He died, some years ago.”
“Oh. I would have liked to see him again. How did he die?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
Again, another awkward silence.
“Besides, I daresay you really had no need of training, if what I have read about you is true,” she said. “You do most of your work with gun and knife. Not very civilized, you know.”
“I’ve used my bare paws when I needed to,” he said defensively. “And Master Fan taught me the sword.”
“For what? Opening cans?” she asked. Her expression was still carefully neutral, but her eyes sparkled with mischief.
Teasing me, huh? Hao raised an eyebrow in unconscious imitation of his father. “Care to find out?”
Xiu glanced around the room. “I don’t see any swords.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. I know a few people here, and perhaps one of them can supply us. Care to try your luck?” he asked, a lazy grin starting to spread across his muzzle. He stood and offered her his paw.
She sat and looked up at him for a moment, then took the paw. As she got to her feet she suddenly twisted his paw and tugged, making Hao wince as he was pulled off-balance. She twisted again and his arm was suddenly pinned in a quick hammerlock. “Your reflexes are a trifle slow,” she observed teasingly. She let him go and added, “But this might be interesting. Let’s go see your friend.”
Hao walked with her to the door, seething quietly. She was fast, no doubt of that.
Well, he’d see just how fast.
Finding an acquaintance who owned two swords took an hour, and the blades were dull as well. But the swords were the same long-bladed, slender jian they had both trained with under their mutual tutors.
Sharp edges and points would only pose a problem.
“Now, where shall we go?” Xiu asked as they walked through the busy Chinese section of Casino Island. They each carried one of the swords, sheathed and resting against their right shoulders.
Passers-by gaped and made way for them as the pair headed for the taxi rank.
“I was thinking of a small cove, down on South Island,” Hao replied. “Away from prying eyes.”
Xiu considered and nodded. “Agreed.” They reached the taxi rank and Hao started to haggle with the driver in Spontoonie.
The trip to South Island didn’t take long, but the sun was climbing higher in the late August sky and it already promised to be a stiflingly hot afternoon. Hao suppressed a smile, thinking that the heat might give him a small advantage.
The water taxi driver almost scraped his boat’s keel on the soft sand, and while Hao paid him (with extra to have him come back in an hour) Xiu waded ashore. Hao followed her, careful not to get too wet.
Xiu watched the boat pull away before drawing her sword, swinging it idly to get a feel for its weight before falling into a series of training postures and moves, the blade shining in the sunlight. The skirt of her light sundress and her headfur fairly floated around her as she stepped through the various moves. Finally she stopped, brushed her headfur from her eyes and grinned at him. “Ready?”
“Huh?” he asked, becoming aware that he’d been staring at her. “Oh. One moment.” He took off his suit jacket and tie, laying them across a small bush, then kicked off his shoes and socks. A pause, and his .45 and its shoulder holster joined the jacket before he drew his own blade, going through the same series of moves.
A bit more slowly and awkwardly, true, but the lessons were coming back to him quickly.
“Ready.” His tail swished and threw up a small cloud of soft, almost powdery sand as he moved to a high guard stance, blade held poised over his head and pointed at her like a scorpion’s tail about to strike. She mimicked the posture, and after a second lunged at him. His blade met hers, and the duel began.
Apart from the sound of wind and wave in the small cove there was little sound save for the two red pandas breathing, their feet stamping on the beach, and the ring and hiss of steel meeting steel. Xiu lunged again, getting inside Hao’s guard and causing him to fall back. He stumbled, rolled and got to his feet in a spray of beach sand, parrying her next lunge before her sword could touch him.
Xiu grinned. “Almost got you that time.”
Hao grinned back, shook sand from his headfur and resumed the duel.
At one point, while she was pressing him backward, he thought She’s damned good. Let’s try . . . something to distract her . . .
His blade met hers and deflected the blade up; they met chest-to-chest as each fought to overpower the other.
He took advantage of the opening, and before she could react he kissed her on the tip of her nose before springing back and resuming his high guard.
Xiu stood there, touching her free paw to her nose before glaring at him. “How dare you?” she asked, a bit of anger showing in her eyes. “You’re not allowed to kiss me yet.”
“I know,” Hao laughed, “but I’m always doing things I’m not allowed to do. Should we continue?” And he sped across the sand toward her as she brought her sword up to block him.
The duel resumed, puffs of sand flying as the two sought an opening. Hao was a bit taller and stronger, but slower and less well-trained than Xiu, who was hampered by the sand dragging at her shoes.
She brought her blade overpaw and down in a vertical chop that he parried, feeling the shock through his arm. He closed the gap and kissed her again, this time on the lips.
Xiu froze. Anger caused her exposed skin to flush red as she backpedaled, the curse she mouthed eclipsed by the sound of a plane passing overhead. He had managed to get through her defenses twice, and that made her mad. She took a breath to center herself, and went after him again.
Hao was grinning at her as he blocked and parried, her blade flashing as she tried to find an opening. Finally she backed him against a tree, pinned his sword against the palm’s trunk in a high parry, and kissed him on the mouth.
She glared at him triumphantly, panting.
He smiled at her. “What took you so long?”
Xiu growled, and Hao swept his sword out from under her pin, sending both swords out of their paws and flying through the air.
The two blades landed upright, points down in the sand at the same instant the two embraced and kissed.
A sound caused their ears to flick, and they broke the kiss and looked out across the lagoon.
So did Hao.
A boatload of tourists had apparently been making their way around the various islands and had stopped to watch the duel. Now they were applauding, and at least two were surrendering bets to a third.
Hao started to laugh and Xiu looked at him crossly. “What’s so funny?”
“You came to Spontoon to see the sights – and now you are one.”
After a moment, she started to laugh with him as they gathered up the swords.
“I wonder where Hao and Xiu went,” Peng said. She had spent a very pleasant afternoon talking with Qing, and now sat on the balcony sipping tea with her daughter. “It’s been several hours.”
“I don’t think he’d try to sell her,” Shin observed, grinning to take the sting from her words. She was doing her best to keep her anger from showing, and she was resolved to confront that feline hag about it as soon as possible.
Word to that effect had already been sent to Luchow’s.
“She’s very pretty, and – oh, ho!”
“There they are,” and mother and daughter glanced down to see Hao and Xiu, arm in arm, walking up the road to the Grand.
Hao had two sheathed swords cradled against his shoulder.
“They look tired,” Peng remarked. She tsked at her daughter as Shin giggled. “You shouldn’t jump to conclusions, Shin.”
The couple walked right past the entrance to the hotel, and Peng thought that they might be returning the swords. She hoped that, whatever had transpired, the fact they were arm in arm boded well.
Hao’s friend was pleased that the swords were returned in the same condition in which he loaned them, and Hao and Xiu walked back to the Grand.
They stopped in front of the suite set aside for her family, and the two shared a kiss. “You know, our parents will ask where we went,” Xiu said.
“Yeah.” He really wasn’t in the mood to face questions. “Do you want to go somewhere else? Back downstairs to the Casino, maybe?”
Her eyes gleamed as she smiled. “I’d like that. I want to put a bet down on the races.”
“I started about two years ago, although I don’t think Father and Mother know about it. I used to go to Happy Valley and watch the horse races, and after about a year I found a reliable bookie. You might know him – Yan Ping?”
He thought. “No, afraid not.” He leaned against the wall. “So, we meet downstairs in the Casino in, say, ten minutes? You might want to freshen up.”
She looked at him, then sniffed. “Make it fifteen,” she said. “We both need to freshen up.”
And fast, she thought. His scent’s making my toes curl.