(July 1937, South Island, Spontoon.)
Amelia Bourne-Phipps relaxed at the bar of the Hotel Topotabo, looking out over the sunset as she and Miss Cabot sipped long Nootnops Blues over crushed ice. This was their last week on Spontoon for quite awhile; on Saturday they would board the Shawnee Skypaths flying boat for Anchorage, Alaska where the giant Italian CA60 awaited them to take them over the icy roof of the world towards Europe and new adventures.
“At least – we’ve cleared up all the loose ends. Mostly. And Helen’s a married woman at last!” She raised her glass in a toast to “absent friends”, the Texan tigress now honeymooning in the Kanim Islands. “I never thought we could – but it’s all done. Now we can relax till Helen gets back.”
As she finished her drink (Nootnops Blue being one of the many things she would miss, away from Spontoon) Amelia felt a warning twinge that was not part of the Warrior Priestess training she had learned from Saimmi. It was more basic than that. Anyone assuming all their troubles were over – well, that was just tempting Fate.
Surely enough, when Amelia and Miss Cabot returned to the Hoele’toemi compound there was a letter awaiting with a Spontoonie five-cowrie “local delivery” stamp, far less scenic than the brightly coloured issues the tourists put on their postcards.
A set of feline ears pressed to a nicely permed set of head-fur. The writing was exquisite copperplate, and of all her class she only knew one who practiced that style – Beryl, who found it useful for forging share certificates, banknotes and other such profitable products destined for unsuspecting customers. But she shook her head – Beryl had departed the previous day, Amelia waving farewell at the airport and watching carefully as the aircraft vanished over the horizon in case the mouse bailed out and made an undocumented return.
Suddenly she recalled who else wrote in that style, a legacy of a more genteel era. “The Miss Penningtons. Now what?” She popped out a claw to slit the wax-sealed envelope open, feeling again that twinge of unease. It had been scarcely a week since she had returned from rescuing the oldest and youngest of the sisters from the Kuo Han Euro slave trade; a costly campaign and not even a wholly successful one. Missy Blanche and Missy Cindy had been erased like a blackboard, and a standardised willing, easy-to-please personality put in their minds by the Dark Priestess. Amelia had taken a suitable vengeance even knowing that it solved nothing – it was two vixens who answered to Silk and Chestnut that she had brought back to their horrified sisters.
“Sorry, Mrs. H,” Amelia gave a wan smile at her (hopefully) future mother-in-law as she tapped the letter. “I can’t stop for supper. I’ve got to get over and stop the Penningtons doing something silly. Again.”
Mrs. H gave a sympathetic nod as she scanned the proffered note. “My Helen, has a saying from her home island “crazy like a fox.” I’m not thinking this is what she means by it.”
Ten minutes of brisk walking back across South Island brought Amelia to the small Spontoonie village where four currently stateless vixens lived far from prying eyes and sniffing noses along with their guardian Nairoba, the niece of Judge Poynter’s trusty housekeeper.
That worthy picked up her elegantly furred ears at the sight of Amelia hurrying towards her along the track that wound through three-yard jungle. Guides did not bring tourists here, and the relatively few unescorted visitors generally turned back at the quicksands warning notices.
“Ho!” A Saluki tail twitched; Nairoba was Spontoonie by birth but more remote Russian ancestry was clearly on show along with more fur than was customary in Siberia. “Lady Allworthy! I am pleased to see you!”
Amelia nodded towards the longhouse she had visited a few days earlier. “The Penningtons. Are they still here? I’m not too late?”
“Still here. I had them write before deciding anything. I hope you can talk some sense into them.” Nairoba’s long muzzle wrinkled. “I hate to say it but – I don’t see why you bother. Between them they’ve not got the sense the Gods gave to four coral polyps.”
“Everyone is worth bothering with.” Amelia quoted one of her schoolteachers; the Songmark staff had been remarkably deficient on platitudes. “But I have to admit … some are a lot more bother than others.”
Inside the longhouse was a scene not typical of the postcard standard “native hut” as beloved of the tourists. Although there was indeed a fire-pit, currently unlit in the July heat, that was about the only traditional feature. Incongruously enough one end of the hut held a mirrored wardrobe, dressing table and clothes press while four impeccably neat single beds were at the other end. In between were split-back chairs and tables including a radiogram with desk – and the occupants were making use of them.
“Lady Allworthy!” It was the second eldest sister – or possibly the eldest surviving Pennington, Missy Emily, who rose graciously as she saw the feline enter. “We are honoured! Ah hope we did not inconvenience your kind self. Ah was so hoping yourself would be able to help us again.” Her accent was almost as impenetrable as Helen’s had been on arrival at Songmark three years earlier.
Amelia reflected that curtseying was something she was out of practice in, neither Songmark shorts nor Native grass skirts really being suitable. “I hope I can.” Amelia’s tone was guarded; she had sighed with relief having done a quick vixen tail-count. She brought out the note and tapped it cautiously. “What’s all this about?”
Missy Emily’s ears blushed charmingly. “May we talk?” She indicated the veranda at the far end of the room that looked out into the darkening jungle. Only fireflies flitted to and fro in the trees.
Amelia followed, her native feline curiosity tempered with a sense of foreboding. It was the same feeling she used to have whenever Molly brightly announced “a damn swell plan” though she doubted the Penningtons’ notions defaulted to starting with blowing up or setting fire to anything as a diversion.
Missy Emily took a deep breath, her paws clasped to her maidenly breast. “Lady Allworthy. Ah can never thank you enough. You saved our sisters’ lives – and brought them back. As much as could be saved. Even your obeah-woman, said there was likely nothing more could be done. The way they are now, she said, they’ll likely stay.”
Amelia’s fur had bristled somewhat hearing Saimmi, the High Priestess of Spontoon, described as an “obeah-woman” but firmly reminded herself that with their restricted background the Penningtons had few other words to describe her. She held her breath, grimly expecting the worst.
“We’re not sisters any more.” Missy Emily’s gaze dropped to examine her foot-paws. “We’d always been so close, brought up on the Plantation and not five years between us. When we reached these islands we told each other that we’d always stay together. Certainly, back home ah’d hoped we could get ourselves husbands one day and that’d change us – but always in the same way, together.”
Oh bother. Amelia’s whiskers twitched. At the same time she felt a slight relief in that it was not the problem she had been dreading. Silk and Chestnut had been rescued – in Kuo Han terms legally they had been stolen – from a not unhandsome oriental mastiff who had not mistreated them particularly. Silk and Chestnut might have wanted to go back. Amelia felt as if she had dodged a bullet, but was equally sure the rest of the ammunition belt was still heading her way.
“Miss Pennington.” Amelia tried to recall the exact tone their Songmark Tutors had taken to get across “your idea sounds reasonable on the surface but is plain wrong”; it was a lot harder than it looked. “I’m very sorry we got there too late. But there’s nothing I know can change matters. I’m sure your grandfather told you stories of how some furs came home from… the War Between the States, with maybe half their snouts or both their legs blown off. Their families took them in. Your sisters aren’t as badly off as that.” She had been about to say “The Great War” but realised it was quite possible Miss Emily had never heard of it.
Emily continued to look at the veranda decking. “Ah knows. They can’t come back. To be sisters again we have to … go where they are.”
Amelia knew that there was little chance of finding a convenient bucket of iced water outside a Spontoonie native longhouse on a hot July evening – and had there been one, emptying it over the vixen would probably not help wash away a complete lack of common-sense. But she looked around, just in case. “I see. Where did that idea come from? I’d heard you’d been talking to that rat from Kuo Han … Pebbles, wasn’t that her name?” She had heard of the surviving Penningtons being approached by a certain rodent girl working for the Embassy and intent on acquiring a complete set of vixens for her employers at no extra cost.
Emily’s ears twitched in embarrassment. “She talked to us weeks ago – we’ve not seen her since. But when Blanche and Cindy came back the way they did… we asked them if any of it could possibly be true. And they told us… everything.”
Amelia counted to ten, reflecting it was unladylike to roll one’s eyes in exasperation even if the object of that exasperation was not meeting one’s gaze. “Did any of that actually strike you as a good idea? Something you would look forward to?” Telling the Penningtons what happened to captured slavers would shock rather than enlighten them. It must take a very long time to be eaten alive by crabs, she reflected – but having witnessed their work she was not going to be writing to The Times complaining about shockingly inhumane Native traditions.
“Well, for lordy’s sake, no!” Emily’s eyes went wide. “Well. Not mostly. But … they remembered everything. That first night at the Embassy. That Oriental gentleman and what he did … and what he had them help each other with.” Her voice trailed away, but she rallied bravely. “Though they calculate it was like in a book they’d read, not something that happened to their own selves.”
“Missy Emily,” Amelia said slowly, taking care to time her breathing as she was sure her Songmark Tutors always did. “Your sisters laid down their lives so you and Miss Lucy would never have to find that out for yourselves. Yes, their lives. They’re gone now, the people they were. I could bring their living bodies back, but not your sisters. They sacrificed it for you. And you want to throw it all in their faces?”
“We didn’t know it was going to be like this!” Missy Emily suddenly wailed. “We thought, it might take twenty years but they’d turn up somewhere and we’d be back together again. But now – we don’t match. If we still had a maid to bathe us … even she could see!”
And I thought Molly was bad enough, Amelia reminded herself. It took three years but eventually I persuaded her there were some social situations where a satchel charge or a saw-backed bayonet might do more harm than good. She closed her eyes and forced her heartbeat to slow with one of the rituals Saimmi had taught her. “I have to go at the end of the week,” she told the vixen. “I may be able to do something for you. Don’t do anything rash, please, until you hear from me." And hopefully not then, she added mentally.
As Amelia took her leave, she realised she was out of her depth and needed professional advice. Her ears perked up for the first time since receiving the note as those words triggered a face from her memory and a unique set of qualifications that just might help.
Nuala Rachorska tended to keep late hours in tourist season; when she awoke the next day in her bedroom on Casino Island she noted two things. The clock was striking noon, which was nothing unusual – and there was a folded note by her bedside table labelled “urgent” in her mother’s paw-writing, which decidedly was.
“Lady Allworthy, to consult me on a personal And professional matter. Well!” She scanned the note, as her mother entered the richly furnished boudoir. “Mother? What time did this arrive?”
“Lady Allworthy brought it in furson at nine – she said not to wake you, but she was in rather a hurry herself.” The Countess Rachorska smiled fondly at her only child. Unlike the Countess’s aristocratic lupine form, Nuala was as exotic as her name. A huge banded tail was her pride and well-groomed joy, as were the musk glands that scented any room she stayed in an exciting ripe melon aroma.
According to the story the world thought it knew, in 1917 the Countess had fled her estates and escaped the Red Terror in Siberia on a tramp steamer – only to be captured by pirates in the South China Sea. She had been six months at their secret lair on an island whose real name she never knew before escaping and arriving on Spontoon’s shores, where a few months later Nuala was born. The birth certificate listed “Father: unknown.”
The reality was somewhat different, as she reflected warmly – both less and more romantic depending on one’s point of view. Nuala’s father had indeed been an oriental civet and there had been a tramp steamer but no pirates involved – instead she had taken into exile rather more than just fond memories of a very lithe and handsome cabin-boy. Nuala had been told the true facts on her twelfth birthday – and also the inconvenient truth that her mother had not actually been born to nobility but had been the late Countess’s seamstress. The true Countess Rachorska was buried in an unmarked grave along with the rest of her close family, and there was nobody to dispute the claim as long as she stayed clear of Vostok where second cousins with inconveniently long memories and family photograph albums might be a problem.
“Lady Allworthy. Oh, yes. I’d love to receive her.” Nuala’s green eyes flashed. “She – or I should say Kim-Anh Soosay – is a registered Huntress, after all. My door is always open, that’s my job.”
“This door?” Her mother tapped the bedroom door.
“Oh yes. Especially that one.”
Although to Nuala’s vague disappointment Lady Allworthy turned up an hour later in her office rather than her boudoir, the problem the feline carried had the secretary and treasurer of Spontoon’s Huntress community pricking up her surprisingly wolf-like ears.
“Interesting.” She folded her paws and thought hard for several minutes.
“That’s one word for it. I thought of you right away.” Amelia had been brought up like most decent people to regard psychology and psychiatry as something fundamentally unclean. She recalled a quote about everything in Freud being “a matter fitting the police courts rather than the consulting-room” but from what Nuala had let slip three-quarters of a huntress’s skills were psychological rather than physical. Some of that was to persuade a customer that he or she was doing what they most wanted to, while in fact being subtly led by the Huntress (who often had her own ideas.) The rest was what distinguished the carefully licensed Spontoonie branch of the world’s oldest profession from ninety-nine percent of all the rest – successfully persuading her own body that the generally unimpressive tourist was someone they really, really wanted to mate with, and right away.
Nuala smiled. “I have some ideas, yes. Those poor girls have hardly had a balanced upbringing, have they? Stuck on that island with the only males outside their family ones they can hardly even speak to. I’m not surprised that rat talked them into selling themselves for a twentieth of what they were worth!” She shook her head sadly. “If they’d had any money your friend Beryl would have sold them a bridge each. Strange girl, that. She’s had her license since the month she got here, only ever used it on her own fiancé and never for more than a shell. A percentage score, she once said. Anyway. The Penningtons. We’ll have to … provide something of what they want, but make sure they don’t follow in their sisters’ paw-prints to Kuo Han.”
“And how,” Amelia quoted her friend Helen’s favourite phrase. “What he did might never send him to court, round here. It was legal, on the Embassy grounds. But I won’t be amazed to see his obituary jolly soon in the Daily Elele tourist edition “found dead struck by a falling coconut.” Not that the coroner around here would make a fuss about where the nearest coconut tree was.”
“And how!” Nuala echoed. “I’d hate to think of the “honest” price for a matched pair of virgin Euro vixens of their pedigree on the block at Tanglon! It’d certainly buy this house and everything in it, Mother and me not included.” She winced slightly. “So, Missy Emily and Missy Lucy want to find out some of what it’s like? I’m not too happy with this, though I’ve staged some rather elaborate … scenes before. Those girls should find themselves a handsome local Todd-fox apiece. Someone they might at least think about marrying.”
“They won’t. They’ve been raised to only be interested in a Southern Gentle-fur of a kind that probably doesn’t exist any more, and I don’t mean by species” Amelia warned. “They’re Southern Belles who’ve been brought up with all the graces and no need for common sense – which is likely to have them follow Silk and Chestnut back to the sales block.” Her ears went down. “Even that’d probably disappoint them, if nobody’s buying matching sets that day and they get four separate buyers. It took everything Saimmi taught me to influence Lin Chung to buy me and Molly together. And I couldn’t help what happened to Molly.”
“I heard.” Nuala sympathised. Miss Cabot had been examined at Lady Allworthy’s request with the rather vague remit of “do what you can”. Although the Siamese feline was a veritable grave of secrets, in her official capacity Nuala was one of the very few who could ask questions and stand any chance of being told. Miss Cabot had been relieved of various rings and other accessories that apparently Lady Allworthy was retaining her own set of for some reason. Miss Cabot’s prescribed course of local herbs to rid her of “worms and other internal parasites” had covered all eventualities.
Amelia brushed her claws through her permed head-fur, still worried. “I’m off on Saturday,” she said “can you get this … resolved by then?”
Nuala’s mind raced. “If you can get all the Penningtons to Casino Island, the Madston Hotel by noon tomorrow – well, I’ll have to make a few phone calls but … yes, I think so.”
“Anything to keep them from walking into the Kuo Han embassy!” Her paw strayed to her purse.
But Nuala waved her away. “Lady Allworthy,” she said seriously “If I can manage that – this one’s on the house.”
True to her word, with two days to go before she left Spontoon, Amelia dropped into the remote longhouse on the far corner of South Island. She found two vixens listening to Radio LONO on the cat’s whisker radio, and two others in a state of high agitation.
“Lady Allworthy!” It was Missy Lucy, the younger Pennington since Silk no longer answered to the family name. “Have you come to a decision?”
Amelia reminded herself about not rolling one’s eyes in exasperation. She realised how her tutor Miss Devinski must have felt on so many occasions when told of her dorm’s adventures. “I have. You really want to be something like them? It’s nothing to look forward to, believe me.”
“Ah knows that.” Missy Lucy blushed. “But … all mah life ah looked up to mah sister. Wanting to be just like her. It hurts, lady, deep in me, that I can’t.”
Amelia sighed. “Chestnut, Silk,” she beckoned the two placid vixens over “I’d like you to follow me. Your sisters … well, they’ll be sent for.”
The Madston Hotel was, like any of the other grand Casino Island hotels, a perfectly respectable establishment that not even the Spontoon Mirror breathed a word of scandal about (possibly the risk of losing the hotel’s lucrative advertising revenues had something to do with that.) It would have surprised no Spontoonie though, just how many handsome young bell-hops earned their tips or just what sort of “room service” was not itemised in detail on the bill. Even so, some of the customers were respectable widows, often enough of the golfing or yachting widow variety, and having some discreetly soundproofed rooms in the attic behind “Staff Only” doors where furs were not going to unexpectedly walk through the door in quest of a forgotten yachting cap helped to keep matters discreet.
Late that afternoon a worried-looking Amelia arrived to see Nuala closing one such door. Not that she had to be particularly quiet about it; from within the sounds of at least two willing and highly excited vixens was challenging the soundproofing.
Amelia raised an eyebrow. “How are things going?” She asked dubiously.
Nuala’s huge banded tail waved nonchalantly. “As I read the Penningtons, they wanted … the glossy surface rather than the ugly heart of the matter. They didn’t really want to be broken to anyone’s will. I wouldn’t do that. But I think they’ll match Silk and Chestnut now, in looks anyway. And in some experiences. The more pleasant ones.”
Amelia’s nose had indeed noted that not all the musk escaping through the door had been female. “You found some gentlemen to play along?”
Considering her chosen profession, Nuala could put on a surprisingly good expression of innocent surprise. “Not just anyone! I remembered what you’d told me of their social life on the Aleutians. Now, I didn’t believe they never looked at the “hired help” without getting a few secret ideas. Especially as it was absolutely forbidden… people enjoy that, mostly.” She paused. “They wanted a shock; I think I found a suitable one.”
“You found sea-otters? Like their plantation used to work? They weren’t what I’d call slaves, but socially …” Amelia’s eyes widened. She recalled it had felt odd in the Penningtons’ stately plantation home with the daughters twittering about how one day they might be able to write away for a suitable husband from half-way across the planet, while there were scores of lithe, glossy-furred otters at the end of the island who were quite compatible enough. She had never dated one, but recalled Beryl’s musings on the twins she had enjoyed without worrying overmuch which was which. A penchant for gently biting their mates’ noses while mating was one thing that had stuck in her memory, as well as certain waterproofing features Nature had equipped them with for a life at sea. The standard Spontoonie Precautions would be no use at all.
“Yes, I found sea-otters. Brothers from the Kanims, a very nice pair sailed over for the tourists in season – or is it the tourist season? No matter.” Nuala winked. “If Emily and Lucy wanted to get them as a matched set of husbands they’ll have to learn, fast, how to compete with the local girls. But they went along with the script I’d thought up. Revenge of the Aleutian Otters! It wouldn’t do for most furs but … green as grass, those Penningtons. They’ll believe anything.” She shook her head.
“And they … match Coral and Pearl’s appearance?” Amelia asked. “They seemed keen on that.”
“Shaved there, yes. Not permanent, it’ll grow back. Tattooed there, yes – well, indelible ink, it’ll wash off in a week or so. Collars, yes – at least fabric chokers anyone might wear. Blindfolded too, at the start – when Miss Lucy asked how long she had to wear it, I told her it might be the rest of her life. I think she got the message. If it’d have thrilled her, then I might be worried. Anyway the blindfolds came off at … a suitably dramatic moment.” Nuala gave a wistful sigh. “I see a lot in this business. But their expressions you had to be there to believe; no film actress could ever match it. After that I just let things take their course.”
Amelia looked up at the ceiling. Her keen hearing picked up the sounds of vixens still having an energetically good time. Evidently Silk and Chestnut had been called on to assist, which they were doing with a will. “That’s some of their … Kuo Han sale value gone. Well, perhaps it’s just as well. They say be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”
“Oh yes,” Nuala’s musk glands perfumed the air as she considered the scene. Peepholes were tacky, “Whatever they might think looking back on this – they got it.”
It was two days later, the day before Amelia and her friends were due to leave the islands, when another elegantly written note with a local-delivery stamp arrived at the Hoele’toemi compound.
“The Penningtons are back,” Amelia announced to Mrs. H, scanning through the note. “I’d better go and see them. I was going to send them this anyway.” She nodded towards a small package containing the pair of carefully cleaned surgical fur-trimming razors that she and Miss Cabot had no further need of. Exactly what the burning cream was that killed fur permanently, was still a mystery – when a slaver ship suspected pursuit it was one of the incriminating items that went straight overboard in specially weighted bags. Being found in possession of such things was not something that would get you arrested, she mused – around Spontoon, slavers did not get arrested and tried in courts where a sharp lawyer just might get them off on a technicality.
“Ho! We can hope they have learned some sense. Those Euros.” Mrs. H suddenly gave a wry smile. “Though when their family first take boat to Pacific Islands, true-certain Spontoon was almost empty! But they still Euros, after all the years.”
“Quite. It seems you can take the belles out of the Old South, but not the Old South out of the belles. Which is a pity.” Amelia squared her shoulders, braced herself and headed out. It was half an hour of forest trails across South Island – but she only briefly wished it was the distance to the Aleutians so she could think of a reason it was impossible. Despite being exposed to the relentlessly pragmatic Songmark Tutors for three years, Amelia believed in staying true to her code and her duty no matter what. Which Miss Devinski had often thought a pity.
“Lady Allworthy!” It was a definitely chastened Missy Emily who answered the door, gracious as ever. Amelia noticed the vixen was not wearing a collar. “We had to … thank you. For everything.”
Amelia’s whiskers twitched. “You won’t be wanting to follow Silk and Chestnut in quite the same way?”
A set of vixen eyes went wide. “Lordy, no!” She hesitated. “Not the way we thought. We had an awful scare. Lucy and me, we had a long talk last night with that nice Miss Rachorska. She’s such a lady. She … told us a lot we’d never thought about. I didn’t know we could still get married, even … after everything we did.”
“It has been known.” Amelia replied dryly.
“Well. We’ll going to be here for months, and Miss Rachorska says she’ll introduce us to some fine and eligible gentlemen. She says if we really want to …” Missy Emily looked puzzled. “She said something about every cabin on the Ark. What did she mean by that?”
Amelia decided one white lie a year was probably forgivable in the right circumstances, and today was the day to spend her ration. “I’m not sure,” she said. Then she uncrossed her fingers from behind her back. "But …”
“Yes, Lady Allworthy?” Both Miss Emily and Miss Lucy had come up and were awaiting eagerly.
Amelia smiled, thinking Nuala would certainly keep them safe in more ways than they ever knew. “I’m sure – I’m very sure – you’ll have a lot of fun finding out!"
The End (Of the Beginning…)