© 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!)
Xiu paused on the front porch before knocking, Hao standing beside her with a paw scant inches from drawing his pistol. Their guard was watching the road. “Why the caution?” she asked.
“Kidnapping for ransom is a business around here,” Hao replied.
“More like a sport,” their guard, a wolverine named Vasily, remarked laconically.
Xiu smiled and hugged her intended briefly. “I’m glad you think I’m valuable.”
Hao managed to get the silly smile off his face as the door opened and Frieda, the half-kangaroo that was the current head girl in the House, peered out at them. She saw the male red panda and grinned. “Hi, Hao! Haven’t seen you in a while. Come for your regular, then?” She looked over at Xiu. “Who’s your friend?”
“I’m going to get married to him,” Xiu said, giving Hao a cool sidelong glance. His tail was starting to bottle out.
“That so? Madam Baader!” Frieda called out before he could stop her. She turned to go back inside, the skunk stripes on her tail and running down the back of her head a vivid statement of her mixed ancestry. “Come on in.”
Before Hao could stop her, Xiu walked into the main room and stopped, mouth falling open as she looked at the décor.
Hao thought that if he continued to blush so much, his fur would ignite.
Hu Xiu blinked at the sight of the various implements mounted on the walls as decorations and ignored for the moment the hard looks being given to her by the few girls who were lounging on sofas or peering over the staircase railing. She took a deep breath, reminding herself that there were very likely houses just like this everywhere in the world.
Even in Hong Kong.
And some of them might, through Tong connections, be providing her family with money.
He likes this sort of thing?
She closed her mouth and forced a smile as Hao stepped up beside her, and she put her paw in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Poor dear, she thought, he looks a little scared.
“Hao, Wilkommen. Wie geht’s ihr?” a gaunt and short-fleeced ewe said, pausing to cough. Her fleece was pure white, which made the black leather she wore stand out quite starkly.
“Uh, um, hello, Madam Baader,” Hao said. He smiled at Xiu, who smiled back.
“Who is this young lady?” the ewe asked in a polite tone, but her eyes seemed to strip Xiu down to her fur and assess her like a haunch of meat. It made the red panda feel uncomfortable, but only for a moment.
She was safe.
“This is Hu Xiu,” Hao replied, “and we’re, um, contracted to be married.” She got the answering squeeze of her paw as he said this, and she smiled.
“Married! Wunderbar! Come, come, let us have some tea, ja? Frieda, if Stephanie is not busy, ask her to join us,” Baader said, ignoring or failing to see Hao’s sudden horrified look.
Or she could have been deliberately ignoring his expression.
Leaving Vasily in the main room, something that the look on the wolverine’s muzzle said he agreed with, Baader escorted Xiu and Hao into her private office and busied herself with a porcelain tea service. While she poured hot water into the pot, Xiu surreptitiously glanced at the underside of one of the cups.
Rain Island ware, from Citizen Dolton.
A little chipped.
She replaced the cup before the ewe could catch her at it, and as Baader poured the tea she smiled at Hao.
Her intended smiled back a trifle uncomfortably, which made her wonder again what could possibly make Hao nervous.
She leaned over and kissed him, prompting Baader to sigh theatrically, murmur something in German and chuckle at her private joke.
The door opened and Hao gulped as Stephanie walked in. The big wolfess’s headfur was a bit disarrayed, as if she had just come from what passed for ‘work’ in the house. She was wearing substantially less than Baader, a thin silk robe covering a leather corset trimmed in lace.
Neither left much to the imagination.
Of course, the musks lingering around her fur didn’t leave much to the imagination either.
“Ja, Carlotta? Was ist los?” She saw Hao and smiled, an expression that grew wider when she saw Xiu sitting so closely to him. “Ach, so. Hao, is this the young lady we have heard about?”
Xiu gave Hao a sidelong look and his smile faltered a bit as he said, “News around here’s a commodity. Yes, Stephanie, this is Hu Xiu.”
“So. Und when are you two getting married, hm?”
The two young red pandas looked at each other. “Well, I guess when our parents decide – based on what an astrologer tells them, of course,” Xiu said.
“Good. I would like to have a word with you, young Xiu – if Hao, of course, does not object?” and she glared at the younger man.
Hao gulped. “Um, no, Stephanie. Xiu, I’ll be right here if you need me.”
The wolfess smirked. “We are just going into the next room, silly boy.” At her gesture Xiu hesitated, looked at Hao, then stood up and walked over to the door that Stephanie opened. A glimpse through the open door revealed a smaller room, probably Stephanie’s office.
Over the course of the next half-hour Hao sat and drank tea with Baader, who forced him to engage in small talk while he strained to hear what was going on in the next room. Most of what he could hear consisted of low-voiced conversation.
Punctuated by giggling.
Finally the door opened and Xiu stepped out, holding a flat box roughly a foot long and half that wide in one paw. She shook Stephanie’s paw and said, “Thank you for a . . . most enlightening chat, Stephanie.”
“My pleasure, Xiu,” the wolfess said as she sat down and poured herself a cup of tea.
After another cup of tea and some further conversation, the two red pandas left the house and started back up the beach road to the Casino. Vasily trailed behind.
“What’s in the box?” Hao asked, unable to contain his curiosity any further.
Xiu grinned. “A wedding present, from all of them. Ah, ah, ah,” she chided as he reached for the box. “It doesn’t get opened until our wedding night. I promised.”
Sunday dawned with a glare of summer morning sunshine that lit Hao’s bedroom up brightly. He grumbled softly at the increase in light and snuggled closer to Xiu, his muzzle threading its way through her mass of curly headfur to nuzzle the back of one of her ears. The two were lying spooned together in his bed.
Finally he felt her stir, and he lightly kissed her neck. “Morning.”
“Mm, good morning,” she murmured, paws reaching up to grasp his arms and pull him tighter to her. “Your bed’s cozy.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he said. He took a deep breath and savored their combined musks. “You know, Xiu, I’ve been meaning to ask – “
“No, I’m not going to tell you what Stephanie and I talked about. It was just girl talk.”
“Not that, although I’m curious. What I wanted to ask was, well, um . . . if I was your, ah, first, um, what happened to your, um – “
She squirmed, rolling over in bed to face him and the two kissed deeply. “I love it when you get all shy and embarrassed,” she teased, a paw smoothing back his headfur. “I’ll tell you a secret,” and she drew closer and whispered in his ear.
His eyes went wide and he whispered, “They have doctors that can do that?”
“For the right price. Mother went with me.”
“Wow. Your parents aren’t very traditional, are they?”
“Oh, they are – when it counts,” and she winked. The two started to laugh, and their laughter grew as Xiu jumped and pressed closer.
Two pairs of ears flicked as a heavy paw knocked on the door. “Hey, Hao!” Peng-wum called out. “If we’re going to get back to Spontoon by lunchtime we’d best get a move on.” Another knock. “Hey! You awake?”
“Yes, Brother, I’m up,” Hao said, squirming a bit. “I’m up.”
The Keystone performed reliably as it always had, and set down in the lagoon as instructed by the Eastern Island tower. More aircraft had been arriving, to the point that the controllers had called in extra shifts to handle the traffic.
It promised to be a very well-attended Speed Week.
One more warship had shown up over the weekend as well, the cruiser Adelaide from Australia. She rode at anchor in formation with the other warships already present.
“Hello!” Hu Renmin said as the Great Pagoda’s dining room door opened and the younger members of the two families walked in. He beamed as his daughter kissed him lightly on the cheek and then hugged her mother. “So, all back safely and in one piece, eh?”
Xiu gave him a mock-indignant look. “Oh, Father. You know perfectly well Hao would look after me,” and she grinned at her future husband. “And I was never in any danger, as far as I could tell – Krupmark seems like a nice place, actually.”
“Oh?” Ni Peng said, smiling as she sipped at a glass of ice water. The chill she felt was wonderful; ice was a scarce and valuable commodity on Krupmark. “Hao, be sure to tell her what happened last Christmas, please?”
Hei asked, “Peng-wum, any trouble back home?”
“None, Father. Clarence has everything well in paw.”
Menus were called for as the newcomers took their seats for lunch.