Most of the characters in this piece and the setting for it, were conceived of by Rumiko Takahashi for her Ranma1/2 series of Manga. All such characters and the setting are the property of Takahashi-san and her licensees. All other characters in the piece are purely fictional and any resemblences to actual persons living or dead are purely coincidental.
The Nekohanten owned four bicycles, one for Mu Suu and three for Xian Pu. Two of the four had been reduced to nothing more than sources of spare parts for the bicycle Xian Pu preferred to ride. This was no surprise given that Xian Pu could easily put a hundred and sixty grueling kilometers on a bicycle in a day, and that Ko Lon did not believe in overdoing capital expenditures. The two "spare" bikes were picked clean long ago and Mu Suu had been raiding trash heaps for parts, but on this busy Wednesday morning, he simply did not have the time to scrounge. He shook his head and stumped back into the restaurant.
"What is it, Mu Suu?"
"We may have a problem with bicycles."
Ko Lon sighed. She knew all too well how hard Xian Pu was on a bicycle.
"What now, Mu Suu?"
"Well, we have been out of spare parts for quite a while now and I've been scrounging them up from trash heaps. If Xian Pu has a breakdown today, I'll have to let her have my bike."
And it won't hold up for more than half a day, Ko Lon thought. Well, this day's been coming for a while, may as well cure this problem while the cash flow is good.
"Say no more, Mu Suu. Go get the things on this list before she comes limping back in here with that old wreck of hers and takes your bicycle."
Mu Suu adjusted his glasses and read the list.
"You are going to make a bouillabaisse?" he asked incredulously. "And bread?"
"A bouillabaisse and a brioche to be exact. Watch what happens today and you will learn something important about saving money and gaining allies. Now get going!"
"Okay!" Mu Suu said dubiously as he walked out to his bicycle.
"When did she learn how to cook this stuff?" he asked himself aloud as he straddled his bike. "Ko Lon is a fountain of surprises. I'll just bet she speaks French on top of everything else. I'll probably have to barter for some of this stuff at that fancy French place. It isn't part of our regular supply list."
Ko Lon returned to her work in the kitchen with only half her mind on her cooking. She had slept very little despite the fatigue brought on by the frenetic pace they had held all day the day before. The brawl at Miyagi's place had jarred her awake shortly after she lay down. She had merely chuckled at the caterwauling of Tillie's boyfriend, then got a real belly laugh out of Happosai's yodeling. No doubt whoever had gotten the best of the old fart had been female and practiced an Art Ko Lon had never studied--well not enough to get that sort of result anyway.
The overpowering surge of ki in the wee hours of the morning however, had been a completely different thing. Clearly, the Saotome boy had been having a nightmare and was completely out of control. She had almost forgotten to breath during the ordeal. The ancient records had warned of this danger and others. Until a bearer of the gift learned control, they were a danger to themselves and those around them at night. One or two of those gifted this way had taken to living in remote areas to avoid hurting others inadvertently. This had not been so difficult a measure for those in the past, but times had changed. This child lived in a society with very different demands from those of the past. He needed to finish his schooling and it was time for him to choose a mate. Ko Lon had no doubt that Ranma would choose whom he pleased, custom be damned. He was that sort of person. As was true of many dragons, Ranma Saotome would be self-made. Coming to Nerima and watching the lad chisel himself out of his parent rock had been one of the most entertaining experiences of Ko Lon's long life.
She needed a way to reach out to the boy. Some means of getting past his mistrust of her and Xian Pu. Ko Lon had already deduced that the sudden popularity of the Nekohanten's cuisine was the doing of the middle Tendo daughter. The gambling pool was a Nabiki trademark, but Ko Lon doubted that Nabiki had taken it upon herself to initiate such an action on her own. So long as Xian Pu was busy working, or exhausted from working, she was unlikely to go around picking fights with anyone. Which meant of course that both Akane Tendo and Ukyo Kuonji would be safe from harm. Nabiki might be the hand beating them down to their knees with money, but it had to be Ranma Saotome that set her in motion.
Ko Lon smiled as she found herself liking Nabiki. The girl obviously had talent and intelligence. Ranma would never have thought of using money as a distraction on his own, this sudden spate of business had to have been Nabiki's idea. She was as good an adversary as one could hope to have. It would be time for them to talk soon, but not too soon. Ko Lon never passed up a chance to make hay while the sun was out.
Jean-Luc Thibbideaux was not a cyclist, but his name was known to every serious cyclist the world over. The bicycles he built were the lightest, most rugged of any made. His mountain bikes were legend; his racing bikes storied. Only one other craftsman in all the world could come close to rivaling him in the design and construction of bicycles, an Italian fellow in Naples, who charged five times Thibbideaux's highest price. The problem had been that Thibbideaux had not been making the money he should have been able to make in his native France. Being a very Frankish Frenchman, Thibbideaux loathed the idea of going to the United States or Canada as much or more than he did moving to Germany. The only other country in Europe where he could find both the materials and patient, craft labor he needed to construct his bicycles was Italy. A profoundly finicky Frenchman such as himself living in Naples? Come now! Let us not be absurd! Besides, the tax situation in Italy was really no better than it was in France. To be sure, the Italians had made an art of cheating on taxes, but Thibbideaux was too ardent a socialist to participate in such a practice. So it was that Jean-Luc Thibbedeaux, after many months of traveling the world and agonizing over the positives and negatives, settled where no other Frenchman had ever settled before. He opened a bicycle shop on Forges Street in the Nerima district of Tokyo, Japan.
Here, he could work his usual four days per week, six hours per day and still make enough money to build up a decent savings account. This situation would have been perfect, except that after six months of living in Japan, he was beginning to think he might actually commit murder to have a decent brioche. Worse, sticky rice was not exactly his cup of tea. For that matter, he did not like tea too terribly much, either. Certainly he did not care for the bland, nearly tasteless green stuff the Japanese favored. He reminded himself each and every day to overlook these nearly fatal flaws in his temporarily adopted home. The rate at which he was making money now, would allow him to purchase that little cottage somewhere along the Cote de Azure in another ten years. Once he had a home paid for, he would never need to touch another tool unless he just wanted to. The advantages of Japan had resoundingly outweighed its disadvantages. The materials he needed were easily available here with few or no questions asked. In France, the purchase of a two meter length of titanium tubing guaranteed a visit from the police, even if he had filled out all the paperwork properly. Here he had very few problems with the local authorities, tax collectors and otherwise, not to mention that the craftsman here were better than the best he had been able to find back home. A Japanese craftsman would willingly work on something until it was flawless, little or no supervision required.
Oddly enough, very little of his business came from Japan itself. The Japanese had a rather cavalier attitude towards bicycles and would often throw one away simply because it had a flat tire. The number of serious cyclists in Japan was tiny and very few of them had budgets that allowed them to purchase his goods and services. Curiously, over fifty-percent of his business came from the United States and Canada, the very places he considered so tainted with commercial interests that he refused to grace their shores with his presence. Another twenty-percent of his business came from Great Britain with the remainder going to any number of odd, out of the way places, including the two mountain bikes he had recently shipped to some tiny village in the far off Provence of Qing Hai, China. The one unsurprising thing about his business was that nearly sixty-percent of his customers were French expatriates like himself.
Sunrise on the Wednesday morning following Akane Tendo's failed wedding found him in his shop, putting the finishing touches on a mountain bike that he was almost certain that he would not be shipping for another year or more. The customer who had ordered it, an American, paid him half the bicycle's price in the form of a cashier's check. Since that time however, he had been involved in a terrible racing accident in the Cascades of Washington State. He would, in all probability, be laid up in the hospital for a year. Jean-Luc Thibbideaux loved bicycles almost as much as dogs love trucks, loved bicycle sports and loved cyclists, but he had no illusions about them. This American kid was going to have the devil's own time ever paying off the other half of what he owed. Still, a bicycle was a bicycle and they were the medium of Jean-Luc's art. He took as much care with this machine as he would have taken with any of his other creations.
Nabiki loved the cellular telephone, and she hated the cellular telephone. She loved them because they let her get things done that would have otherwise been entirely too inconvenient. She hated them because they tended to bother her when she least needed or wanted to be bothered, like during breakfast.
"Forges Street deliveries were five-minutes early to right on time. Now headed for the fish market," the voice on the other end of the call said. He called this early only because he had been told to, and knew his boss would not consider his terse delivery of the facts as an offense. To the contrary, she would very much appreciate it.
"Big trouble at Miyagi's last night. Panda in zoo. Pervert in jail, charged with IE this time. Third party sent to clinic. All others limped, or flew home. Exact damages unknown. Your father carried away by pull cart, destination believed to be your house."
"Kasumi, have you seen Daddy this morning?"
"No. I think he and Uncle Saotome must have stayed over somewhere. Neither of them came home last night."
"Meet me at the front door, Sis. I think I know where Daddy is."
Nabiki got up and walked to the foyer and opened the front door. Sure enough, her father was snoring away on the front step. Someone had pinned a note to his gi. Nabiki took the note and read it.
"Tendo Nabiki-san. Please visit me at your earliest convenience today. We have a great deal to discuss. Yours, Miyagi Jiro."
"Nabiki!" Kasumi said, in a tone of reproval.
"They must have gotten into a brawl last night, Kasumi. Miyagi pinned this note to Daddy's gi."
Kasumi took the note from Nabiki, then read it.
"Oh, my! You had better go by and have look at it on the way to school."
"I will. Would you call the contractors for me and have them meet me there?"
"Yes of course. Would you help me get Father into his bed, please?"
Just as they had gotten the unconscious Soun Tendo half- way down the hall to his room, Nabiki's red phone rang.
"'Biki they had big trouble at Tofu's clinic last night!"
"I'm not sure. Some kind of explosion from the looks of what they are showing on the television. The entire front wall has been blown to bits. Wait a second...the fire captain is saying something about a cryogenics leak."
"They said one man is missing, but they aren't giving out any names."
Nabiki fought down the panic rising in her throat.
"Okay. I'm going to be late getting to school this morning. Tell Mr. Shimamura what has happened. He'll understand and take care of the details. Set odds on panty raids at 100 to 1. Be sure and tell all comers that Happosai is in jail. Take all bets. Got it?"
"Hai, Oyabun! Big money day, neh?"
"Let's make it a really big, money day. Set odds at 500 to 1 and take all bets."
"All bets! At 500 to 1?"
"All bets. This is a fool and his money deal for today. Long odds on all the usual Saotome stuff. Long odds on all the Kuno and Akane stuff. Long odds on general weirdness. Tomorrow might be different. Standard odds on Kodachi, Shampoo and Ukyo, got it?"
"Ooh! A dull and profitable day!"
The betting pool tended to receive large numbers of small bets when the odds were running in this direction. Days like this often made them more money than the extremely active ones. This of course, would be on top of Operation Market Garden.
"That's about the size of it."
The two girls got Soun into bed quickly and efficiently, having had much practice at it.
"Okay, Kasumi, here's the scoop. Happosai is in jail for indecent exposure."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi said with a laugh.
"Uncle Saotome is in the zoo again."
"Oh! Ranma will be so pleased!" Kasumi exclaimed with a smile. "And I can't wait to tell Auntie Nodoka."
"Miyagi's must have taken a pretty heavy beating, but you know as much as I do about that."
"There has been a problem of some kind at the clinic."
"I don't know how bad it is yet, but would you have Mr. Uchigawa meet me at the clinic instead of Miyagi's? Tell him I will most likely have a cost plus job for him there. Ask the other contractors to meet me at Miyagi's at nine. I'll call Miyagi myself."
Uchigawa was by no means the lowest cost contractor in Nerima, but he was the fastest and had the best connections with the Nerima Inspection department. Things went quickly when he worked on them, but you paid.
"What happened, Nabiki?"
"I'm not sure, but from what was reported on the television this morning, I think Ranma must have knocked out a wall of the clinic."
"Don't say anything to Aunt Nodoka until after I've had time to check it out. It may be nothing. You know how these things get blown out of proportion."
"All right. You had best run along. I will finish with father. Oh, is the television on the blink again?"
"Yeah, I guess that would be best."
"I will take care of it. Anything else?"
"That's all I can think of...Oh! Drop your cell phone into your apron pocket. I may need to get a hold of you fast."
"All right. I'll fetch it as soon as I have Father all tucked in."
"Gotta run, Sis."
"Be nice to your sister and Ranma."
"Call me as soon as you know how everyone is."
"I love you."
"I love you too, Sis. Bye!"
In her flat above the only Okinomiyaki shop in Nerima, Ukyo Kuonji watched the morning news and shook her head in dismay.
"Would you look at that, Konatsu?" Ukyo asked her ninja assistant, "Whatever on earth makes their parents think those two can survive being married to one another?"
"It might have been something other than an argument, Ukyo- sama," Konatsu said.
"Oh, come on. You know how they get along. What else could have done that much damage to the building? Akane probably knocked my poor Ran-chan right through the front wall."
"I don't think she would hit him while he's so sick, Ukyo- sama."
"Hmmph! Her problem is she doesn't know how to appreciate a real man like Ranchan. That's why she's gonna lose him to me."
Konatsu shook his pretty head in dismay.
Uchigawa had seen the morning news and left immediately after Kasumi called. He had brought one of his own inspectors and an estimator with him. The fire captain had let them through the barricade and they were already crawling around the rubble, taking notes when Nabiki arrived.
"Good morning, Tendo-san!" the fire captain said to Nabiki.
"Good morning, Captain-san!" Nabiki said back to him with a smile. She had known him since childhood. All but three of the firefighters were gone. All they were needed for now was to direct traffic around the dangerously cold rubble until it thawed out.
"We will be leaving soon. Uchigawa has a labor crew on the way to clear the street."
"Thanks. Is this one billable?" As with many fire departments all over the world, the Nerima Fire Brigade billed property owners for calls stemming from their own negligence. The fees charged only covered a fraction of their real cost, but the idea was to encourage people to be safe.
Nabiki suppressed a groan.
"Just a single alarm though."
"Oh, good," Nabiki said, sounding relieved. "What's the report going to say?"
"I am calling it a small cryogenics leak. I will swear before all the Kami of Japan that it was corrected while I stood here and watched."
"Thanks. What's a report that favorable going to cost me?"
"Oh, no charge this time. We're talking about Doc Tofu, here."
Nabiki breathed a sigh of relief.
"May I go have a look? I need to speak with Uchigawa-san."
"Sure. Just be careful not to touch anything with you bare skin. You might stick to it."
"It's still that cold?"
The fire captain looked grim and nodded. "Be very careful."
As it happened, Uchigawa saw Nabiki and came to her, saving her the trouble.
"Good morning, Tendo-san."
"Good morning, Uchigawa-san."
"It looks like about two-hundred thousand, right off the top of my head. That's at cost plus five."
"Cost plus five?" Nabiki could not conceal her surprise. Uchigawa ordinarily charged cost plus fifteen, and rarely as low as cost plus ten.
"Well, it's for Doctor Tofu you see."
"When can you finish?"
"Oh, mid-day Friday I think, provided we don't have a lot of rain and the local inspectors show up on time. I'm pretty sure they will."
"I don't suppose you are going to give me any breaks on Miyagi's?"
"Are you kiddin'? I like Miyagi, but he's a pain in the ass to work for."
"What if I keep him out of your hair?"
"Keep him out of my hair and I'll do the job at cost plus ten. Believe it or not, that will cost you less than having the job done on a fixed price contract."
"I'll let you know." Nabiki had no doubts that Uchigawa was right. Miyagi always tried to squeeze more than he should out of contractors, not realizing that Nabiki had already squeezed them down as far as they could go. It led to friction, delays and claims for extra work. "Meet me there at ten or so?"
"Have you seen Doctor Tofu?"
"Oh, he's in the clinic. The cops brought his missing patient back," Uchigawa said with a shudder, "The poor, ugly schmuck tried to get on a local train wearing nothing but a hospital gown and didn't have any money for fare."
Nabiki rolled her eyes.
"Wait'll you see the guy. Wanna bet me this one makes the evening news?"
"Not until and unless I've seen the guy."
"Believe me, you don't want to look at him."
"Word I get is that your old man used him for a naginata last night."
Nabiki actually groaned out loud, which made Uchigawa laugh.
"See you later, Uchigawa-san."
"You bet! Say, how about lunch?"
"I'll let you know. I suspect I won't have the time."
"Aw fooey!" Uchigawa said, mocking sharp disappointment.
Nabiki gave him her best, "I'm flattered you think I'm sexy smile," then let the matter drop by walking off towards the clinic's back door. The truth of the matter was there was only one face she really wanted to see and she would not be able to carry on for the rest of the day until she saw for herself that he was unhurt. Holding her pace to a walk took nearly all the self- control she could muster. She breathed a sigh of relief to find Ranma and Akane in the same examination room as before, studying as though nothing all that exciting had happened.
"Good morning, Nabiki-aneechan."
"Hi, guys. So what happened last night?"
"It's sort of my fault," Akane said.
"I had a nightmare," Ranma said.
"I talked him into eating pizza for supper last night," Akane said.
"Lots and lots of pizza," Ranma said.
"With everything but anchovies," Akane said.
"Including jalapenos and this ground, red-pepper junk," Ranma said.
"So? What happened? You belched in the lobby and blew the wall down?"
"Well no, not exactly," Ranma said.
"He lost control of his ki, Nabiki," Akane said.
"Lost control of his ki?"
"Yeah, I got to sleep walkin' and while I was in the lobby I, uh, I sorta froze everything."
"Yeah, it got pretty cold."
"And then you kicked the wall down?"
"No! I didn't kick nothin'! All I did was yell real loud."
Ranma looked so shame-faced that it was all Nabiki could do not to hug him in front of Akane, but she managed to hide her feelings by laughing instead.
"Maybe we should find you another place to recuperate, Ranma."
"I really am sorry about this, Nabiki. I'll find a way to pay you back, I promise."
"Okay, Saotome," Nabiki said with a coolness she by no means felt, "I'll put it on your tab. You're lucky, you know. The contractor thinks well of Doctor Tofu. He's only going to charge us two-hundred-thousand yen for this little job."
Ranma and Akane both stared in horror. Nabiki had to suppress a laugh. She would never really demand that Ranma pay for the damages. She was going to make Happosai pay for it all. Not only was he primarily responsible, he could afford it. Under ordinary circumstances the old man was too elusive for her to gain any leverage over, but today, well, today he was in very bad need of one Nabiki Tendo. Only Nabiki could help him right now. Nabiki had little doubt but what he would pay for nearly anything she asked him to pay for, and pay willingly. Still, it did not hurt to let Ranma know what his lack of control cost. Nabiki had great faith in the carrot and stick system, especially when it came to dealing with Martial Artists.
"Where's Doctor Tofu?"
"Down the hall with another patient," Akane said, "but don't go in there. Wait for him to come back out."
"Yeah! Believe me, you don't wanna see the other patient!" Ranma added. Both he and Akane visibly shuddered. Akane looked as though she might become physically ill.
"Daddy must have done one heck of a job on the poor jerk," Nabiki said.
"Daddy?" Akane asked, clearly alarmed.
Ranma's eyebrows disappeared beneath his bangs with shock.
"Yeah, he picked a fight with Daddy over at Miyagi's last night," Nabiki said. In truth, she had did not know that this was the case yet, but the best defense was almost always an aggressive offense, especially when the bay of legal beagles could be heard off in the distance. With a little luck and the right kind of pressure, the guy might even cough up a contribution towards the damages at Miyagi's. The funny thing about brawls at Miyagi's was how many men would come by the payday after a brawl and give her money. It was a good thing, too. The Tendo's very often needed it.
"Wow!" Ranma said.
"Daddy, did...that?" Akane said, staring off into the distance.
"'Fraid so," Nabiki said cheerfully, "You guys got anything ready to turn in at school?"
Much to Nabiki's schock and surprise, both of them did. Ranma handed her a surprisingly large quantity of paper.
"I'll have a lot more ready by this afternoon," Ranma said.
"So will I," Akane added.
"Okay, I'll send someone over to pick it up around two, will that be okay?"
They nodded their assent.
"Good morning, Nabiki. How are you today?" Tofu asked from right behind Nabiki, giving her something of a start. Nabiki wondered if Tofu weren't really a ninja.
"Oh, I'm fine. I guess you could be having a better day though, huh?"
"I suppose, but I chose to practice here Nerima because it's never dull."
They stepped out into the hallway together and strolled towards the cubbyhole Tofu used for an office.
"I have a contractor here already. They should have everything cleaned up by ten this morning and he says he can have everything good as new by noon Friday if it doesn't rain."
"Nabiki! I haven't even called my insurance company yet!"
"Don't call 'em. We'll take care of it."
"Are you sure? This is going to be expensive."
"We're the Tendo Clan, Doctor Tofu," Nabiki said with a slight catch in her throat, as she gave a glance back towards the room Ranma and Akane were in, "We take care of our own."
"Oh?" Tofu asked, sounding a wee bit dubious.
"I am _not_ the monster I'm made out to be, Sensei."
"I figured as much. Anything else you'd like to talk about?"
"No, not--not now. I've got to get out of here and get to school. I just wanted to stop by and make sure things were, ah, moving along."
"All right, but remember, I'm here if you need me."
"Thank you, Sensei," Nabiki said, "Gotta run!"
"Thanks, Nabiki!" Tofu called after her.
Nabiki turned but kept walking towards the back door, "They'll probably want to replace all the tile in the lobby, and may even want to replace all of the paneling. It will save a lot of time searching for matching material."
"That's fine," Tofu said as he held the door for Nabiki.
"Uchigawa-san will bring samples by later."
Tofu shook his head in wonder as Nabiki turned and walked on down the street. He watched as she produced a cellular telephone and began dialing numbers. Tofu sighed.
"Sooner or later I'll be treating her for stress symptoms. Pity she's starting out so young," Tofu said aloud to himself, "Poor kid has never had a childhood."
Far, far to the north and west of Nerima, Prince Haabu (Herb), Heir to the Throne of the Musk Dynasty sat in his treasure room staring at an ancient statue of a dragon. It had been made of drawn strands of copper that were then woven into a frame that was soldered together with silver. Lapis lazuli of the deepest blue had been cunningly carved and polished to form the dragon's scales. Individual pieces of quartz crystal, polished until they were perfectly transparent had been used to make its teeth and spines. The statuette's eyes had been fashioned from amber. The entire thing had been set upon a great block of oak which in turn sat upon a flat, thin base of onyx. Carved into the oaken base in a script so old that Haabu could not decipher it, were the words "Danger! Do Not Touch." It was large for piece of statuary intended to be kept indoors, almost a half-meter in height. Last night it did something Prince Haabu had been told it could and might do someday, but he never expected it to do--it sang. Well, assuming of course you understood that the word "sing" was here being used in the same manner as "singing sword." It had been more of humming ring.
While it sang, two of the five toes on each of its feet fell off. Dawn on this Wednesday morning found Prince Haabu still sitting before the now silent dragon, staring at it as he clinched in his left fist, the eight toes it had shed. Somewhere in the Japan, a new dragon had been born. Haabu was fairly sure he knew who the new dragon was. What he needed to decide now was what, if anything, he should do about this surprising development. The old writings indicated that a great many things should be done, but Haabu mistrusted much of what they said. Times had changed in ways that those long-dead authors had no way of anticipating. He did not think that blindly following the edicts of tradition would lead to the wisest of actions. As much as he hated to admit it, he needed sound advice and there was only one place where such advice would be available to him.
"Raima! Minto!" (Lime and Mint)
"Yes, My Lord Haabu?" They chorused.
"You will remain here and guard this place with your lives until I return."
"My, Lord!" Raima protested, "Surely you do not mean to travel without us?"
"I must, friend Raima. This place must be carefully guarded at all times, yet I find that I must go see some one."
"How long will you be gone, My Lord Haabu?" Raima asked. He looked thoroughly upset.
"Only for two or three days, perhaps five at the very most, but no matter how long I am gone, you two must stay here and keep this place safe. Am I understood?"
His servants did not like their orders, but understood them. Haabu was convinced that they would indeed do their best to carry out those orders, but he also knew that leaving the two to their own devices for too long invited a great deal of trouble. He dared not tarry any longer than he must.
High atop a nearby mountain, known in both Qing Hai and Nerima as Houzan (Phoenix Mountain), a very similar occurrence had taken place at the same time. The dragon statuette in possession of the Houzanjin (People of Phoenix Mountain) was exactly the same in its essential features as the one belonging to the Musk Dynasty. The Houzanjin however, were at this time being governed by a committee of elders because their sovereign, referred to by the Houzanjin as Lord Safuron (Saffron), was still in the early stages of regeneration and therefore incapable of exerting leadership. A committee is a truly peculiar life-form in that it possesses six or more stomachs and no brain. The news concerning the dragon in the Land of Wa upset the committee terribly, rendering it even more brainless than usual. After they played hot potato with the issue for twice as long as honor and decorum demanded, they pitched the wretched subject back into the lap of Lord Safuron's eldest advisor. No single member wanted to address the subject, let alone mention the prophecy that predicted such an event. His instructions were to conduct a study, then report back to the committee.
The old advisor saw no need for conducting a study of the matter, inasmuch as he had read everything in the Houzanjin's extensive library, including all ten-thousand of its two-thousand, six-hundred year old, clay tablets. He planned to do exactly what he had already recommended the committee do. He planned to confer with the Most Revered Grandmother of the Joketsuzoku. After all, they already knew everything the Houzanjin could possibly hope to know about such a situation, and if this information was insufficient for the decision making process within the committee, then another, well respected source of information was required. The problem was that the Houzanjin and Joketsuzoku had not been on friendly terms for almost a millennium now, and even though the majority of those sitting on the committee saw the wisdom of the old counsellor's advice, none of them dared to openly agree with him in anything remotely like a public forum. Even though the ruling committee of the Houzanjin was a closed autocracy, and therefore not open to review by the general public, it did have some twenty stomachs and no brain, which meant that as secretive as the committee tried to be, it leaked like a sieve. The ancient scholar was therefore given the authorization to "conduct a study," with no specific instructions on how to conduct such a study, nor was he burdened with restrictions upon the means or manner in which said study was to be conducted. He took this as license to confer with someone in possession of information or sources of information which he did not already have at his disposal.
Thus armed, the ancient counsellor paid visit to on Captain Kiima, late of the Houzanjin imperial guard. She, unlike most of her superiors, was capable of making a decision under pressure. She did not always make good decisions, in which case she made more than one decision in quick succession, but she could and did make decisions quickly. Believe it or not, this is a key trait of a good field officer. A quick decision, irrespective of its quality, is very often the single difference between a glorious victory and crushing defeat. Indecisiveness will almost always result in a crushing defeat, so even a bad decision is better than no decision, but try telling that to a creature with twenty stomachs and less brain power than an inebriated slug. Captain Kiima quickly decided to fill the ancient scholar's request for four powerful, but discrete guardsman to bear him in his palanguin to unspecified places for a duration of one week to two months. By noon Wednesday, he was on his way to a remote little shack situated high up in the end of a box canyon on the outskirts of Joketsu territory. The shack was just a facade. It covered the mouth of a vast cavern wherein the Joketsu safeguarded their library and other treasures, such as their Most Revered Grandmother, with whom the ancient scholar was so desperate to consult. He could expect a gracious welcome despite the less than friendly relationship currently extant between the Houzanjin and Joketsuzoku, because scholars flocked together despite their differences in stripe or feather. He already knew what the Most Revered Grandmother knew about dragons anyway. What he needed to know from her, was what sort of consensus was growing among the Joketsu, or what sort of consensus she was trying to foster in the leadership of her people. They were faced with a situation in which the two tribes desperately needed to put aside ancient feuds so that they could cooperate to mutual benefit. United they may or may not manage to stand, but by remaining divided they were certain to fall and would fall quite hard.
"Welcome, Lord Haabu! May I get you some tea?" the Joketsu girl asked as soon as she saw who was standing at the door. She showed no surprise.
"Just water thank you. It has been a long walk," Haabu said. It had indeed been a long walk. He had skirted around the bulk of Joketsu territory to reach this place.
"Of course, Lord Haabu. Please be seated. Most Revered Grandmother will see you very soon."
"Thank you," Haabu said as he sat down. He wondered if the old woman would insist upon speaking with him here, in the tiny little house that hid the entrance to the Joketsu Treasury. He had been but a small child the last time he had visited the place. The girl brought him a glass of water. The water was clear, cool and sweet, as only the water from a mountain stream can taste. He emptied it greedily and the girl refilled it from a pitcher. He drank half the second glass without stopping and she refilled it yet again.
"That is enough," Haabu told the girl.
She bowed and left, leaving him with his thoughts. They were not pleasant thoughts. Of his own people, only he and two others remained alive. For almost two-thousand years his people had been a terrible force to be reckoned with. They were still formidable but with only three of their number left, it mattered little. The world had changed. They would now change with it or become extinct. The change he was contemplating however, would no doubt cause his honorable ancestors to sputter with fury. Let them sputter, he thought, I do what I must.
"Most Revered Grandmother is now available, and requests the honor of your august presence."
"Very well," Haabu said as he rose to his feet.
"Follow me, please."
The girl led him to the back of tiny house and they proceeded out the back door and into a small, beautifully kept garden. Two incredibly powerful looking Joketsu women in their thirties puttered about the place, looking for weeds to pull. Few gardens looked as neat and as beautifully kept as this one, but very few gardens had a couple of bored Joketsu guards walking about in them all day every day. Not a single leaf was out of place. The rocks in the tiny stream had been arranged and rearranged until the notes it made were perfect. The place practically oozed patience and calm. Haabu knew that it was a deadly sort of calm. The women who worked this garden were formidable ki adepts and would have no qualms about sacrificing tranquility to see their duties carried out.
The girl led him to an outcrop of stone from the canyon wall and motioned for him to stand next to her. As he did so, she rang a tiny bell. Part of the cliff face of swung out just far enough for a person to enter. He followed the girl inside. The entry way opened into a small chamber, deliberately made small so as to serve as a choke point. He was greeted by a half-dozen, heavily armed Joketsu. None of them were very friendly looking and all of them gave him hard stares. He knew that they were reading his ki for hostile intent. Haabu reminded himself not to bristle at their effrontery. It was a necessary part of their job. What they guarded here was not only irreplaceable, but might well prove deadly for the whole of humanity should it get into the wrong hands.
After several moments of inspection one of the guards rang a tiny bell and the portcullis at the end of the entry way began to rise with clanking and clatter of chains. Obviously, the Joketsu had not elected to install electrically driven winches. This made sense to him. What might well have struck the uninitiated as a waste of labor was actually a good security measure. The portcullis could only be raised by someone inside who used their muscles. This way there would be no electronic circuitry to short, nor automated mechanisms to exploit. The only way in was by approval or by treachery.
The vast cavern beyond the portcullis was well lit, much better lit than it had been when he last visited the place. A quick glance upwards told him that the Joketsu had added quite a few fluorescent lights to the incandescent lighting that had been in place before. Haabu wondered how long it had taken the Joketsu men to work this subterranean wonder. Even though the entire thing had been carved from native rock, the walls, ceiling, and floor had been carefully dressed smooth. The floor had been paved with fine marble and polished until it shone like a mirror. The walls were painted with glorious frescoes of men and women casting nets from graceful, lateen rigged ships floating upon beautiful blue seas, or performing kata on sacred ground, or fighting bulls, or simply dancing in gardens graced with exotic looking flowers. The great pillars which supported the roof were wider at the top than they were at the bottom. Each one had been carefully dressed, then painted a lovely crimson color which was different from the reds typically used in the rest of China. The place was not a single, great chamber. Great hallways led off in different directions with side passages and many rooms both large and small. Numerous stair ways led up and down to even more great hallways and rooms. It was the reflection of an ancient past both glorious and tragic. Haabu found himself wishing he could have visited this place more often.
The treasury was crowded with women cleaning or repairing things, then putting them back in their places of storage. Several women were busily working at transcribing ancient texts written on tablets of clay, or stone or bronze, onto scrolls made of fine paper. Here there was treasure enough to sate even the greediest of hearts, and knowledge enough to employ an army of archeologists and scholars for a century or more. Sadly, much of it was knowledge which must be kept hidden for many years to come.
He followed his escort as they wound around and up and down through the great labyrinth until Haabu was thoroughly lost and they arrived at the audience chamber of the Most Revered Grandmother. This room was surprisingly intimate and informally arranged. It was equipped with couches and a low table rather than chairs. The table was made from an onyx not to be found anywhere on earth since the destruction of their homeland. The couches had been carved from the native rock and covered with cushions of local manufacture, but the floor was covered by a rug, carefully woven from dyed wool and of a middle-eastern design unknown to the rest of the world. The lighting was soft, almost natural, but this was because it was lit by lamps of design so ancient and so secret that only a handful of people knew of their existence. Haabu remembered the room quite well, having been here several times before as a child. None of it was surprising to him, except that there was a man in the room with the Most Revered Grandmother. A man almost as ancient as she and a Houzanjin. Haabu had never met the man, but quickly deduced his identity. He had to be Count Chervil, First Councellor to Lord Safuron.
"Welcome, Haabu!" Most Revered Grandmother said, "It is good to see you again."
Haabu smiled inwardly to himself. Coming from anyone else, especially a woman, such a greeting would have been insolent, but the Most Revered Grandmother had never been a respecter of titles or position and at her age, everyone was either a child or a potential student. She respected a person strictly for their individual merits and nothing else.
"Greetings, Revered Grandmother. I am pleased to see you again."
"Meet Count Chervil of the Houzanjin."
"I am honored to meet you, Treasured Scholar," Haabu said to the ancient old man.
"It brings me great pleasure to meet with you, Prince Haabu."
"Tell me, Haabu of the Musk," Revered Grandmother said in a loud voice, "Have you eaten today?"
This gave Haabu considerable pause. She had interrupted the flow of his and Chervil's greetings. Deliberately no doubt. The old woman had patience for strict formalities only when it suited her. Again Haabu smiled inwardly, remembering how his father had behaved as he had gotten older. He would often use the excuse of a visitor to eat something the doctor said he should avoid. No doubt, Revered Grandmother was not above using the same ploy. The truth was he was hungry, but he wondered if he should give her an excuse to violate her doctor's orders. No doubt, Count Chervil was himself on an "old person's" diet. Were it not for Haabu's presence, Revered Grandmother's custodians would have served them per doctor's orders. The old woman was looking much more frail than she did when he had last seen her. She probably would not live much longer no matter what sort of diet she ate .
"I have not eaten since noon yesterday, Revered Grandmother."
"Hah!" the old woman hooted with joy, confirming Haabu's suspicions. "Then we'll have a meal brought to us while we chat."
"Thank you, yes."
One of Revered Grandmother's trusted attendants appeared as if by magic and began serving tea.
"So my young Prince, what brings you so far from home?" Revered Grandmother asked as a sly smile played upon her lips.
"A new dragon springs up in the Land of Wa," Haabu answered coolly. Dragons begat dragons, but some dragons were self-made, this was all part of ancient lore. Sometimes an ordinary being of extraordinary spirit made itself into a dragon. Sometimes it was a carp swimming up a swift running rapid during the spring flood, other times it was a man contending with terrible odds. This time the new dragon was a man. A man with whom Prince Haabu was familiar.
"Do you know who or what this dragon springs from?" Revered Grandmother asked.
"Yes. It is a man."
"A man?" Count Chervil asked.
"Yes. As it happens, I know this man. His name is Ranma Saotome."
"You know the Saotome child?" Revered Grandmother asked, feigning mild surprised.
"I have fought with him, Revered Grandmother. He is a man to be respected."
"I see," both the older people said together. Both understood at once that Haabu was admitting that he had been defeated by Ranma Saotome, just as Haabu intended them to understand.
"I suppose you know that he has fought with Lord Safuron," Count Chervil said.
"Yes," Haabu said, again smiling inwardly. Leave it to Ranma to run afoul of that one, he thought. "The fact has been brought to my attention."
In truth, the matter would have been difficult to ignore, given that Jusendo Mountain was now little more than a hill, just as Horaisan (Treasure Mountain) had been reduced to a pile of rubble in Japan.
"So, you have come to tell us about this new dragon, Prince Haabu?"
"I thought it a good excuse for more than one thing, Revered Grandmother. Much has changed here in the Middle Kingdom. The tried and true is no longer quite so effective as it was in the past."
Both of the older people looked at him with respect they had not shown him before. At that very moment, their meal arrived. This gave Haabu time to carefully consider what he would say next. The matter at hand was quite delicate, but he suspected that Chervil's presence here at this particular time meant that he was not alone in his assessments of their plight, the plight of the entire region around Jusenkyo. He was not at all sure that either of these old people would approve of his plan. Whether they did or not, either or both were likely to tell him something he needed to know. In any case, what he had in mind would not have been possible had Safuron been in a position to oppose it. As matters now stood, the plan was still very unlikely to ever be completely implemented, but without Safuron's opposition at least a great part of it was possible.
"When the dragon speaks, yin and yang will mingle," Revered Grandmother said with a chuckle. The quote was quite ancient but it had special meaning insofar as both Haabu and Saotome were concerned. "So what is it you intend to try, Prince Haabu?"
"The roast chicken looks delicious," Haabu said, knowing his declaration would amuse the elderly woman. She did indeed cackle. He said nothing more until he and they had removed the edge from their hunger.
"My political situation is rather simple, compared to that of many in our region," Haabu said. He paused to sip his tea and see if this got a reaction. He was rewarded with a pair of rueful smiles.
"This affords me a great deal of flexibility in many respects. In large part, I am constrained only by the disapproval of my honorable ancestors and certain possessions which must either be carefully safeguarded, or utterly destroyed."
Revered Grandmother and Count Chervil exchanged significant glances.
"These possessions do not belong to me alone and I am therefore loathe to see them destroyed."
"Are you going to request guards of the Joketsu as you did the last time you traveled?" Revered Grandmother asked.
"No. I am afraid that would be too much of an imposition, if not unwise. I am seeking a safe place to store them until such time as I can retrieve them."
Haabu said nothing more and watched as the elderly people's eyes widened with shock, then smiled to himself as they began to turn blue. Neither of them seemed able to breath.
"I could make inquiries about such a place, if you like Prince Haabu," Revered Grandmother said with something of a gasp. She was by that time in great need of air.
"That would be most kind of you, Revered Grandmother," Haabu said, granting her a genuine smile, "There is one other thing I would ask of you if it is not too much an inconvenience."
"Of...of course, Prince Haabu! Ask what you will."
"There are certain scrolls and tablets in my archives which are either difficult to read, or in need of translation to a more modern script. Would you know of someone who might be capable of such a task?"
"I would consider it an honor to look into the matter for you, Prince Haabu," the old woman said. She managed to maintain a calm demeanor, but Haabu could see that she really wanted to leap up off her couch and click her heels together. Count Chervil looked as though he might faint from the effort required to remain silent.
Haabu smiled at the ancient woman and said, "I am most grateful, Revered Grandmother."
"The pleasure is all mine. I assure you, Prince Haabu."
Haabu turned his attention to their repast and said nothing more, knowing that the Revered Grandmother needed time to think. She did not take long.
"Tell me, Prince Haabu, will you be traveling in the Land of Wa sometime soon?"
"Perhaps then you would do me the honor of traveling with my envoy. I am sending him with a suitable escort to Nerima, in the Land of Wa."
"Will you be sending this dispatch soon?"
"As soon as certain important arrangements can be made, yes."
"I would be delighted to safeguard your envoy, Revered Grandmother. It is the least I could do under the circumstances."
Count Chervil had the air of a man whose tail feathers had been set on fire, but refused to spoil his urbanity by giving it any notice. This amused Haabu. He understood quite well the import of the tentative agreement he and the Revered Grandmother had just reached. Some among the Houzanjin would become quite upset. Others would be delighted. Thank the kami and Saotome that Safuron had be reduced to a mere child. Otherwise a war would break out before he managed to return home. As things now stood, Haabu could afford to wait a day or two and see what developed. War among the three great tribes was the least likely of the possible outcomes he had weighed. If everything went perfectly, however unlikely that might be, then the three tribes might well find themselves covered in something like their original glory. All he could do at the moment though was to exercise his patience. The matter was now in Revered Grandmother's capable hands.
"Tell me, Prince Haabu," the old woman said between sips of tea, "What do you think of the old prophecy?"
"My father taught me that prophecy was merely a political tool. It should only be used after careful consideration," Haabu paused to take a deep breath, "and then used only with the greatest of caution."
This answer amused both of Haabu's older companions. He was not surprised. His father was as superstitious as anyone you would hope to meet and put great stock in the old prophecies. Haabu had lost his enthusiasm for them early on. His father's teachings in this respect consisted of bad examples. Some of those examples had been very costly for the Musk. Haabu had yet to forget the smell of cordite mixed with smell of torn up dirt that had been soaked with blood and urine. Even worse was the memory of PLA troops laughing at the twitching and dying bodies of fallen Musk. His people had learned a hard lesson about machine gun nests, interlocking fields of fire and prophecy that day.
"You must be tired, my Lord Haabu," the old woman said, "Would you like a bath and a place to sleep the night?"
"That is most gracious of you, Revered Grandmother."
The old woman waved at one of her assistants and the girl led Prince Haabu away.
"Well, Paama, he shows great intelligence to be such a stuffy, young man."
"Yes, he is very intelligent," Revered Grandmother said with a smile, "And a little too pompous."
"Do you think he is serious about enlisting the Musk back into the service of the Joketsuzoku?"
"Only if certain conditions are met, Chervil," Revered Grandmother said. "I am fairly sure that he has the same thing in mind as we do. Remember, the reason the Musk went their own way before is because we refused to listen to them concerning matters of defense. No one who knows any history has ever questioned the loyalty of the Musk, only their perspective and wisdom."
"I still question their perspective on certain issues, but I never doubted their judgement in matters of defense. We relied too much upon our isolation. The Joketsu relied too much upon politics and diplomacy. Now we are in a trap."
"The Musk have not done that much better, Chervil. Of course, they may not have attempted to defy Beijing had we listened so many years ago. They are not necessarily loyal to us. They always considered themselves the Guardians of the Knowledge first and defenders of the people second. They were intended to be the last line of defense, remember?"
"So you think Prince Haabu has more than one purpose for visiting the Land of Wa."
"Yes. I have it on good authority that the Saotome child saved his life. He owes the child a life debt. Visiting him at this time would make sense, especially if Haabu can offer the child some help, but that will not be the sole purpose of his visit."
"You believe he goes to choose a place to store the archives."
"I am certain that he will and I agree with him. As powerful as our warriors are, even if combined with those of the Houzanjin, we would never be able to hold out against the PLA. Their numbers and their machines would eventually conquer us. Not even Lord Safuron would be able to defeat them in a pitched battle, and because we are constrained to defend these archives, a pitched battle would be inevitable. The archives must be moved."
"You know Paama, the People's Lumber Company is already cutting the forests on the lower slopes of Mount Phoenix. This action has alarmed many, but I have cautioned our people against resistance. So far, they have agreed. Fortunately, they tend towards timidity without Lord Safuron to support them."
"You have seen what is happening here. Already a tenth of our people have had their farms wrecked by mud slides or flooded by silted streams. Beijing seems to think a hundred yuan a month replaces a farm. It cannot go on. Will your council object to your moving Houzanjin archives?"
"Oh, there will be some protest to be sure, but nothing I cannot handle. Moving the treasures and weapons will be another matter altogether. I have contingency plans for destroying the more potent items."
"The costs for relocating these archives to the Land of Wa is going to be significant," Revered Grandmother said.
"I realize that, but you needn't worry. The mineral wealth found in Mount Phoenix is considerable. A lack of money will be the least of our worries. Inexplicable money will be the problem."
"Agreed. Now then Chervil, what of relocating your people?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
"I am advocating it. Many think it is a good idea. A few old hotheads want to stay here and fight, but I think wisdom will prevail in the end. This place is not safe and never will be again. Should war break out between Beijing and the Western Barbarians this entire region will be reduced to a bubbling sea of glass."
"Would they do that?" Count Chervil asked, sounding horrified.
"The people I sent west to find out assure me that they would. The peoples of China are almost too numerous for them to fight in a conventional war. They will take no chances with the toys Beijing has buried just to the east of us. My preference would be to relocate the Joketsuzoku to the Barbarian Gold Mountain, but they are watchful of their borders and their government is intrusive when it comes to taxation. Relocating all the Joketsuzoku and our archives to that place unnoticed would be extremely difficult. The Land of Wa is much closer and the Wa, for the first time in centuries, are being a little more accommodating towards foreigners."
"The Houzanjin are very reluctant to settle elsewhere, as you can well imagine. All but a tiny fraction of our numbers would need to bathe at Jusenkyo first. No one willingly gives up the ability to fly, Paama. I must confess, I am deeply concerned for my people. I do not know what will become of them."
"You must keep trying, Chervil. They cannot hold Mount Phoenix by force, not even with Safuron's help could such a thing be done. Once Beijing hears how unique your people are, they will live out their days in a laboratory. Those fools in Beijing will not consider your people to be human."
"I will do all that I can, Paama. What of this young dragon? Is he descended from those of the Second Fleet?"
"I am not sure. Our people in the Land of Wa think so, and we have found names in the archives that are quite similar to his and also that of the local girl to whom he is betrothed."
"He is betrothed to a local girl as well as one of your own? It sounds as though that situation has become rather complex."
"Yes, it has been, um, complicated, but the child's gift provides us with an opportunity to resolve the matter."
"Be honest with me, Paama. You intend to dispatch your token with Haabu, do you not?"
"Assuming I can work out a plan of action with the Council of Elders, yes."
"Then I will return to Phoenix Mountain on the morrow. We both have a great deal to accomplish."
"Have you chosen your successor, Chervil?"
"I have had four or five candidates in mind for several decades now, but none of them really wants the responsibility. That is why I think there would be little trouble over moving our portion of the archives here. What about you?"
"I have chosen mine. She is a very capable and honest individual, but also very wise in the ways of people."
"Have you told her?"
"No. She almost certainly thinks she is destined to become Senior of the Council. The arrival of my token will change all of that."
"Oh, I see! You expect the full support of both her friends and her rivals."
Revered Grandmother made no answer, other than to smile.
"Then I gather you will be visiting the Land of Wa soon."
"Yes, such a visit will be necessary."
"I should very much like to see you again before you leave."
"I will let you know well in advance, Chervil. I am sure we will have much to discuss prior to my departure."
Chervil had not said what was on his mind, but it was easily read. He was blinking back tears.
"I should be very grateful for that, Paama. We have not seen enough of one another over all these years." Chervil paused to regain his control.
"It is late. Perhaps I should give these old bones of mine a rest, Paama."
"I understand, Chervil. The days are too long and the nights too short for me as well, nowadays. Good night, my old friend."
"Sleep well, Paama."
An attendant came and escorted Count Chervil to his quarters, leaving the Revered Grandmother of the Joketsuzoku to her own thoughts and fatigue. So much to do. So very much to do and so very little time. Revered Grandmother sighed. All things must end, no matter their names and my end is near she thought, let us hope I can do all that I must before it comes.
End of Chapter 3 Part a
Copyright © Don Granberry