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 resemblances to actual persons living or dead, are purely coincidental.
As was her habit, Ko Lon rose well before sunup on Thursday morning. She liked the quiet of the very early morning. It as invigorating to sit and listen to a great monster like Tokyo wake up. The only sounds to be heard when she first got up would be the occasional bark of a dog and the prowling garbage trucks. Shortly after that, one could hear the traffic of the sturdy, blue collar workers arriving at the shops along Forges Street. By the time the birds began to sing, Tokyo would be going at full roar.
She woke Xian Pu for breakfast before the sky turned gray. The girl needed time to stretch her sore muscles. Much to Ko Lon's surprise, she had risen without complaint and began working out the kinks. Muu Su served her breakfast when she came down the stairs, and for once, Ko Lon was glad the boy was infatuated with Xian Pu. He'd make a fine, second husband for her, though it would probably be better if she made him third. He might become too much of a nuisance as second husband.
It's a pity about the Saotome child, Ko Lon thought. Xian Pu truly had her heart set on winning him for the tribe, but now they would have to adopt other tactics. Times changed and you either changed with them or got into trouble. Xian Pu would learn a hard, but much needed lesson from all this. Muu Su helped her get the Forges Street deliveries out to the bicycle, then Xian Pu tore off into the pre-dawn grey without a look back. A real warrior, Ko Lon thought. A warrior through and through.
"Yes, Honored Elder?"
"Sit down here and eat!" Ko Lon ordered, "The last thing I need today is you falling out on me when the real business starts."
Muu Su surprised Ko Lon by giving her a fond look as he sat down to eat.
"And none of your impertinence, boy!" Ko Lon said, making her voice as waspish as she could, "I'm not in the mood for it!"
Muu Su tried to hide his smirk by looking down at his bowl, but it did not escape Ko Lon's notice. Dammit! He's starting to think he's family already. Well, that was her own fault. She would never admit it, but she was fond of the boy. He was inferior stock, but loyal and hard working and that counted for a lot in Ko Lon's book. No doubt her real feelings for him were showing through a bit too often. Maybe I should give him a good rap on the head to remind him of his place, she thought. No, he hasn't done anything to warrant it, yet.
"What's that awful smell, Old Monkey?" Muu Su asked with a sniff, "You're trying to suck up to that Frenchman again, aren't you?"
Thock! Ko Lon's staff rapped Muu Su's head.
"Now who looks like a monkey?" Ko Lon asked, suddenly feeling much better about the world in general.
"Ow!" Muu Su said, feigning a great injury, "That wasn't called for!"
"I warned you, Muu Su!" Ko Lon said, brandishing her staff in Muu Su's direction.
"So you did, Honored Elder," Muu Su said with a knowing grin, "Feel better now?"
Ko Lon gritted her teeth in frustration.
"As good as your cooking is, the Frenchman will probably sell us two bikes at a discount."
"Was that a suggestion, Muu Su?"
"Well it was a good one. Now go get the noodles laid out on the racks," Ko Lon said, feigning her usual impatience with him, "We've got a lot of work to do."
"Yes, Honored Elder!" Muu Su said with a greatly exaggerated bow and flourish, "At once, Honored Elder."
"You are really pushing your luck today, boy!"
Muu Su just gave her another grin and hurried off to work on the noodles. Ko Lon sighed and began re-filling her largest kettle with water. Noodles could be a real holdup if you didn't keep fresh, boiling water at the ready. Ko Lon sat down at her own, early morning meal. She was tired of her own cooking. This was good in a way. It kept the flavors from being too much of a distraction while she tried to think.
Xian Pu made her Forges Street deliveries a little early, even though her legs felt like they were on fire in places. She delivered to the bicycle shop last, as Ko Lon suggested. The little Frenchman was waiting for her outside her shop. Xian Pu was pleased with this, so she rewarded him with a little wiggle as she walked towards him with his breakfast. Why did round-eyes like bread so much? She wondered. Were all of them so easily won over as this one? A couple of decent meals and a couple of judicious wiggles was all it had taken to win this one completely over to her side. Maybe I'll make him number four husband, she thought. He's bald and ugly, but very skilled. He could be a great asset to the tribe. Amazon blood would no doubt improve the looks of his offspring. She would discuss it with Great Grandmother. His skills might well be valuable enough to offset his weaknesses.
"Ah, good morning, ma chere!" Thibbideaux said, clearly delighted to see her, "You are most lovely today!"
"Nihao!" Xian Pu said, using her number four smile and her number one wiggle on the hapless Jean-Luc. It was one of her favorite combinations. It worked on all men but the dead ones and Ranma. Well, it even worked on Ranma, just not as much she would like.
"Great Grandmother send you too, too delicious Fa-rin- cha Bu-rayka-fah-tsu!"
"Thank you, Mademoiselle!" Jean-Luc took a long breath through his wildly out of proportion nose. "It smells delicious!"
Xian Pu moved a little closer to Jean-Luc, deciding that he would probably like the smell of her warm perfume at least as much as he did the aroma of his meal. He did. He did not say so, of course, but he did not need to. Xian Pu could tell by the way he reacted. She suppressed a giggle. Like everything else in her arsenal, she only used her giggle on an as-needed basis. Jean-Luc led her into his shop, and put the take-out box down on his desk.
"First, allow me to introduce you to your new machine," Jean-Luc said. With his enthusiasm plainly showing on his face, he gently lifted the tarp which had been covering some object in the middle of the shop floor. What lay beneath was a thing of beauty. Xian Pu could barely believe her eyes. It was at least ten centimeters taller than the mountain bike he had loaned her and a good fifteen centimeters longer. The seat was broad and heavily padded. Xian Pu especially liked that. The seat also had a set of cunningly arranged springs beneath it, which would also help take the edge off the long days she spent pedaling around town. The rack he had designed to hold the take-out boxes were also spring mounted and was equipped with thin bungie cords. Xian Pu realized immediately that this machine was going to make her life much simpler. Even the paint was lovely. Jean-Luc had selected a color which came close to matching her hair. She found that she still had much to discover once she climbed aboard and felt the bicycle sink a little beneath her weight.
"Do you like it, Mademoiselle?"
"Is wonderful bicycle!" Xian Pu said with heartfelt enthusiasm. "Should ride very nice."
Jean-Luc demonstrated how the racking worked by loading the empty take-out boxes for her.
"I can re-gear this machine for you, Mademoiselle," he said, "but I think you should try them as they are for a few days before deciding."
"Okay, Xian Pu try first."
"Now then, off you go, my dear! I'm sure you have many deliveries to make. You're Grandmere's cooking must have an enormous audience."
"For you, my dear," Jean-Luc said, puffing out his chest, "There will be no charge. This is an experimental machine. Once the design is perfected, I'm sure I will sell thousands of them."
Xian Pu could not quite see the sense in this. If he could sell thousands of them, so what? Why should he let her have this bicycle for free? It made her faintly suspicious.
"Great-grandmother unhappy I no bring bill," she told the craftsman, "She not like charity."
"I understand," Jean-Luc said with a huge smile, "Allow me to get some sleep, and I will visit with your grandmother this afternoon. I'm sure she will understand."
"You promise to go see her?"
Jean-Luc answered with a nod of his head, "I promise."
"Is okay then," Xian Pu said, then gave her sunny, happy-happy smile, "Xian Pu go now. Have many deliveries to make!"
"Good bye, my dear!" Jean-Luc said with a cheerful bow and flourish of the hands, "Take care!"
"Bai, bai!" Xian Pu called over her shoulder as she rocketed out onto Forges Street. Aiyah! She thought to herself as she sped around the corner onto Canal. This thing is fast!
Xian Pu failed to notice the boy in a Furinkan uniform as she whizzed down Canal towards her next delivery, so she had no reason to wonder why he was out so early. Nor did she wonder why he fished a cellular telephone out of his pocket and hurriedly dialed a number. Nor had she noticed the boy across the street from Thibbideaux's bicycle shop.
The early light of Thursday's dawn found Tendo-ke in an abnormally quiet state. This was a welcome respite for Kasumi and Nodoka, especially given that the two of them had sat up and talked the entire night. Just as the first, rosy fingers of dawn poked up over the horizon, Kasumi began work on breakfast. Nodoka busied herself laying out bath things to get everyone off to a fresh start. The still very sore Tendo patriarch bestirred himself. Once he had gotten completely out of the bed, he realized that he would only cause a log jam in the bath and fell back across his bed. He would wait until Nabiki went off to school.
By the time the sun revealed its first fiery edge of the morning, signaling the true beginning of yet another day, Kasumi had breakfast made and Nodoka had set the table, but Nabiki had not put in an appearance.
"Yes, Aunt Nodoka?"
"Nabiki doesn't usually sleep this late, does she?"
"Oh, she's been so busy, I'll bet she fell asleep at her books last night," Kasumi said. "I'll fetch her down."
"No, I'll do it, dear," Nodoka said sweetly, "You save your energy. I just imagine your father will try to get up this morning and we'll have to take turns looking after him."
Kasumi smiled. "I think I did hear him stirring around earlier."
Nodoka trooped up the stairs and knocked on Nabiki's door.
Nodoka listened intently, but heard no answer.
She knocked again and called out a little louder, "Nabiki?"
Again there was no answer. Nodoka opened the door a crack and peeked into Nabiki's room. The young woman was fast asleep at her desk, face down upon her homework. Nodoka entered the room and gave Nabiki a gentle hug.
"Huh? What, Kasumi?" Nabiki said, raising her head and gazing at Nodoka with bleary, sleep-ridden eyes.
Nodoka smiled. "Time to get up, dear."
"Come, dear," Nodoka said in a gentle voice, "You have just enough time to get ready for school."
Nabiki groaned again, then looked up at Nodoka again and blinked.
"Oh! Good morning, Aunt Nodoka," Nabiki said as she rubbed her eyes, "What time is it?"
"You have just enough time left to get ready for school, and the bath is waiting."
"How come Ranma and the Panda-man didn't wake me up this morning?"
"Neither one of them is here, Nabiki-chan," Nodoka said with smile, "Do you sleep like this very often?"
"Oh, only two or three times a month," Nabiki said, then yawned, "That's about how often things get too hectic to handle on a normal schedule."
"I see," Nodoka said, thinking grim thoughts to herself, "Are you awake enough to make it down to the bath?"
Nabiki nodded. Nodoka gave her another quick hug and left the room. Nabiki was awake enough to begin functioning, but just barely. She got up, found her robe, then stumbled downstairs to the bath, hoping the furo would relieve the terrible crick in her neck. She completely forgot about the ledger lying open on her desk. Fortunately, it was not a particularly sensitive one. It was just the one she used to keep track of the family finances, and not one of the three ledgers she used to keep track of her various enterprises. Still, it would prove revealing enough.
It was still dark when Ranma began doing his stretches. It felt good, even though he had to take nearly twice as long to stretch out. While he had not gotten flabby, he had gotten rather stiff. Maintaining his flexibility was the first thing Genma had taught him to do, and his stiffness this morning was a reminder that his father was capable of the occasional bout of wisdom. The sky was bright grey by the time he stepped out the back door of the clinic, ready to do kata. The problem he faced was where to start? He launched himself into one of the softer forms, even though he was feeling the urge to indulge in one of the more fiercely energetic kata. This form was derived from one the simpler forms of Tai Chi, but had been heavily influenced by the Anything Goes Style. The moves it consisted of were designed to fend off an opponent rather than to incapacitate him. Pops had cautioned him to study the form closely because the moves it taught were the preferred method of dealing with "overly zealous authorities." Ranma grinned to himself. Leave it to my old man to come up with a form just to deal with cops. The moves were also useful if one were wounded or found his mobility limited by circumstances. It was the logical choice for his first exercise in almost a week.
Halfway into the kata, Ranma realized that several of the moves could be very useful against Akane whenever she was on the warpath. Ranma grinned as he nearly lost his focus at the thought.
"Wouldn't she be surprised?" Ranma whispered to the empty street, I could catch her arm this way, then change this move from this to this. Then I could step to the right, that would take her off balance because it would rock her back on her heels, then all I'd hafta do is scoop with my left arm and there she'd be, cradled in my arms!"
(And beating your brains out with a mallet, Saotome.)
(Red, do you always hafta be such a spoilsport?)
(Nah! To tell you the truth Saotome, I like this idea.)
(Yeah! You ain't the most romantic sort of guy we know, but you do have your moments.)
(Oh, well! Gee thanks, Red!)
(Don't mention it, Saotome. Think you could pull off this stunt opposite hand?)
(Sure! Uh, lemme think about it for a second...got it!)
Ranma repeated his newly devised maneuver, but moving in the opposite direction and sequencing his left first, rather than his right as he had done before. He had to practice it a few times before he got it down perfect.
(Now kiss her quick, Saotome! Before she wonks us on the head with a blunt object!)
(Like one them stone lanterns, ya mean?)
(Or a chair!)
( Or a dining table!)
(Hey, Saotome! I just thought of another move! She'd never expect it!)
(You know how likes to elbow us in the ribs?)
(When she does it from our right side you take a diagonal step to the right with the right foot and reach across to the point of her right shoulder with the left hand, and then we...)
(Oh, I get it! She ends up in the same position in less than a second!)
(Yeah! Only you gotta kiss her quick or she'll get really mad, Saotome.)
(Okay, so we'll practice it until we can do it by reflex. It would be easy for us to hurt her if we get it wrong.)
(A-a-a-h! Left side first, Saotome!)
(All right already! Sheesh! You're as big a pain as the old man!)
(Hey! Shit-daddy's got his points.)
(Yeah! Too bad most of 'em are bad ones, huh?)
(Are we gonna practice or what, Saotome?)
(Let's practice. This is gonna be a hoot!)
Ranma again performed his second, newly devised maneuver of the morning.
(That's great, Saotome--but you forgot the kiss!)
(Okay! Like this?)
(If you kissed that way, you'd be kissing air, stupid!)
(Oh, yeah! How's this?)
(There you go! That's a lot better. We have to practice the kiss or you might forget or kiss the air instead of Akane. That would make us look stupid and get us hurt.)
(Yeah, okay! I'm with you. I'll practice the kiss.)
Tofu Ono woke up much earlier than usual on this Thursday morning. It took him a minute or two to remember that he had actually set his alarm to wake him this early. He wanted to examine Ranma before the boy went to bed and his other patients began arriving. Once his goal for the morning was recalled, he worked through his morning routine unhurried, but efficiently with none of his usual dawdling. It was refreshing in a way. He had adopted a somewhat slower morning routine a year earlier after one of his colleagues had collapsed from overwork. After some study, Tofu had concluded that a stressful morning made for a very stressful day and this was most likely the root cause of many, stress- related disorders. Taking seriously the dictum that a physician should first heal himself, he had made changes to his morning routine. It had helped a great deal, but this morning was proving to a pleasant break from the usual.
Leaving the condominium, he walked towards his clinic at a brisk pace, delighting in the rain-washed cool of the early morning. He knew that it was going to be yet another wonderful day in the neighborhood when Xian Pu passed by on her new bicycle.
"Nihao, Tofu-sensei!" The cheerful Amazon chirped as she went by. Tofu's sensitive ears detected a distinct rise and fall in the pitch of Xian Pu's voice as she passed him.
"Nihao, Xian Pu!" Tofu replied, even though he doubted she could hear him.
The wind from her passing ruffled Tofu's hair and clothing. He was a little surprised by the strength of it, despite the Doppler shift he had heard in Xian Pu's voice.
"Gee, she's shedding vortices like a panel truck!" Tofu said aloud to himself. "That new bicycle is something else!"
He shrugged, then continued towards his clinic. He was not surprised to find Ranma outside running through a kata. He could see that Ranma seemed to be lost in the throes of creating a new kata. What did surprise Tofu was that the kata was clearly based upon Tai Chi Chuan, Tofu's own specialty. Even more surprising yet, was that the underlying style of Tai Chi Chuan was the Wu Jian. A style favored by the Qing Dynasty and the last Emperor of China. It had been little taught outside China and this was the "short frame" version, which was very seldom seen and much more difficult to master. It had been designed to meet the needs of Qing Dynasty Courtiers, who spent most of their days wearing very restrictive clothing. This style did not seem to fit in very well at all with the rest of the Saotome-ryuu's repertoire.
Tofu paused twenty meters away and watched Ranma closely, trying to puzzle out the purpose of the very odd looking kata. He found himself enjoying both a masterful performance in The Art by a great prodigy, as well as working on an intriguing puzzle at one and the same time. Watching the boy work through the problem he had set for himself was like watching the dancing waters in the pool below a water fall. Here his movements were violent and quick, there they became fluid and soft. The kata was a mix of the Wu Jian style of Tai Chi Chuan and the Jujutsu taught here in Japan. Jujutsu itself was little seen anymore. It had been supplanted in large part by Judo.
Tai Chi Chuan is the most paradoxical of all the martial arts. It is often mistaken as being nothing more than a graceful form of exercise, but is in fact one of the martial arts and one that is quite difficult to fully master. A so-called "soft" or "internal" Art, Tai Chi Chuan seems to lack the aggressiveness of the so-called "hard" or "external" Arts." It would be a mistake however, to think that Tai Chi Chuan is any less effective than the other arts. Once mastered, Tai Chi Chuan is perhaps one of the most effective of all the Martial Arts. A master of this "soft art" is completely safe from harm in all but the most trying of circumstances. The same cannot be said for his opponents. They often find their own energy doing great harm to their persons. A Tai Chi adept does not fight with his opponents so much as he manages them, but only for the most ephemeral wisps of time, then the opponent is left to shift for himself. Most of them do not shift so well.
From what he was now seeing, Tofu deduced that Ranma had learned the basics from a Master of Tai Chi Chuan and was probably pretty good at the pushing hands, but the more advanced, short frame techniques of the Wu Jian style must have been taught to him by Genma without ever having instructed the young man in any of the intermediate techniques and moves. Now, even as Tofu stood and watched, Ranma was using his profound grasp of the basics to discover the intermediate techniques he needed without the instruction of a knowledgeable master. One expected such from a man of forty, who had studied a variety of Arts for two or perhaps three decades, but Ranma was not quite seventeen years old and had studied for only eleven years.
Until today, Tofu had harbored serious doubts about the Anything Goes School, having considered it entirely too eclectic. Certainly, specialization has its drawbacks, but too large a variety makes it likely that the student will master nothing. Clearly, Soun and Genma were teaching their students more than just a variety of techniques. It appeared that they put a great deal of emphasis on the underlying purpose and goals of those techniques. Otherwise, not even a prodigy like Ranma would be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge by experiment the way he was doing this morning.
Among the questions niggling at Tofu's mind was why had Genma picked up any of the Tai Chi? It simply did not fit very well with the Anything Goes Style, which was all about the application of power. He decided to shelve that question and ask Ranma later. He could guess at all sorts of reasons for it, but such conclusions would only be conjecture at best. Instead, he focused upon Ranma's efforts and what the boy might be trying to accomplish. He was working very hard at it, whatever it was.
Ranma was beginning the first move of his new exercise from a standing start, rather than a formal stance. He would take an incredibly fast, half-step to the right at a forty- five degree angle, making sure to plant his right foot very firmly by leaning in the same direction. This would shift more than half his weight onto his right foot. Then Ranma would reach around with his left hand, twisting his torso at the waist as he did so. At first blush, this seemed to leave him in a very awkward and unstable position. One only ran this sort of risk if the opponent was expected to be off balance.
Oh! So that's it, Tofu thought to himself. He's dodging a blow to the ribs aimed at his right side, but what sort of blow? After a few more moments of watching, Tofu understood. He checked his supposition by trying it. If a person was standing to your left, and you tried to give them a stiff jab in the ribs with your elbow but missed, the momentum of your left arm forced your left-shoulder back and your right shoulder forward. If you were unprepared for the miss and had not shifted your stance by stepping back with your left foot as you delivered the blow, your torso twisted to the left at the waist, leaving you off balance and vulnerable to an upset. To be sure, this was a very minor overextension, but Ranma was here demonstrating that it could be exploited if the countermovement were executed quickly enough to use the opponent's energy before it dissipated.
Using the opponent's energy was what Tai Chi Chuan was all about, insofar as its combative uses were concerned. Tofu could see where this countermove might easily lead to a vicious throw that would send an opponent sailing away, head down and feet up, landing a good four meters or more away. Ranma however, was not developing this movement towards such an end. This struck Tofu has being very odd, given the way the rest of the Anything Goes practice worked.
After watching Ranma go through the move slowly, one step at a time, refining each part of the move each step of the way, what Ranma was hoping to accomplish became clear to Tofu. He found himself repressing a laugh. So that's why he turns and bobs his head at the end, Tofu thought. I guess it makes sense that he would draw on Tai Chi Chuan for this. I wonder if he knows about some of the other things Taoism teaches? Probably not, but his instincts are good. Very good!
Ranma suddenly stopped what he was doing, still facing the clinic with his back to Tofu. The boy became very, very still. Ah, now he's going through this thing mentally, Tofu thought. Here's my chance! He began to quietly close the distance between himself and his young patient.
(I think we almost have it, Saotome!)
(Yeah, it's real close. We really gotta concentrate this time.)
(I think we ought to grab her shoulder a little closer to her neck.)
(Yeah, we might twist her back or put a crick in her neck if we grab at the point of her shoulder.)
(We gonna be okay with our left foot that far back?)
(Yeah, I'm taller than you, remember?)
(Yeah, okay. Remember to let go and roll our left hand back real hard once she starts over. We want the heel of our hand sliding across her back. The last thing we need is our fingers tangled up in her clothes.)
(Yeah, I gotcha. Hafta remember to go easy on the squat and pull. Too much speed there and we'll send her flying.)
(Remember to look up when we do the scoop with our right arm. Akane's a pretty little thing, but she's heavy. We don't want to hurt our back.)
(It's all that muscle she's got. I'll bet that's why she can't float in the water.)
(We had the same problem, remember?)
(Oh, boy do I remember! I thought the old man was gonna laugh hisself sick.)
(He did laugh himself sick.)
(That's right! He did, didn't he? I thought we were gonna drown.)
(You ready to try this?)
Ranma suddenly and inexplicably found himself kissing the palm of Tofu's hand.
"Gee, Ranma," Tofu said with a wicked grin, "I know you're feeling better, but this really is a little more gratitude than I had in mind."
(Nice catch, Saotome! He's a handsome devil, too.)
(Hey! Hey! Hey!)
(You are such a prude, Saotome.)
(He's a guy!)
(Yeah, and we snatched him right up into our arms, just like we wanted.)
"You know, Ranma," Tofu said, unable to keep a chuckle out of his voice, "I think you should probably point your chin a little higher next time. It would be easy to hurt your back with this move."
(Boy! That was eloquent, Saotome. The man just gives us some sage advice and all you can say is, "Urgh?")
(Oh, my! What an improvement!)
"And you might want to slow down a little on that squat and pull. I don't think you would hurt Akane the way you did it, but a little more caution might be in order"
(Say, "Thank you, Doctor Tofu.")
(He snuck up on us again!)
(So? It's Tofu. He's always been able to sneak up on us.)
(How does he do that shit?)
(Beats me. Why don't we ask him?)
(He ain't never explained it before...)
(Saotome, look at his glasses.)
(Same ones he always wears, so?)
(Yeah, but look at our reflection.)
"You're welcome, Ranma," Tofu said, now openly laughing, "Can I get down now? The neighbors might talk."
"Uh, yeah," Ranma said, looking sheepish as he lowered his right arm and allowed Tofu's feet to touch the pavement, "Sorry about that."
"No need for apologies, Ranma," Tofu said, still grinning, "I was the one pulling a joke on you."
"It worked, too," Ranma said, then chuckled, "I didn't know what to think."
"You know, you could come up with several powerful variations of that move."
"Yeah, I guess I could," Ranma said softly, "but that wasn't what I had in mind for it."
"So I gathered!"
The two of them laughed together this time.
"So where did you pick up the Tai Chi Chuan?"
"Ah, I picked up the basics in some little hick town in Southwestern China. We cut over that way tryin' to avoid Xian Pu."
"Did your dad teach you the Wu Jian short frame?"
"The other stuff you were doing in the first part of you kata this morning."
"Oh, that!" Ranma said, looking a bit shamefaced, "Pops made me learn that stuff. He said I might need to use it against a cop some day. He calls it, "Lazily Rearranging the Chains.""
"That's why he taught you the Wu Jian short frame. It would work for anyone forced to wear manacles."
"Yeah, that's what he said it was for all right," Ranma said dully, "He also said that if I got it right, I could escape without hurting a cop, which according ta _him_, is one of the very worst things ya could do."
"Well he's right about that, Ranma."
"Yeah, okay! But why would a cop ever have me handcuffed in the first place? And if he did, why would I want to try to escape? It'd only make matters worse!"
"That might depend on where you were and what sort of police force you were dealing with, Ranma."
"Aw, I'd like to think that's what the old man had in mind," Ranma said, the disgust deepening in his voice, "but we both know better. He came up with that stuff to escape from our own cops."
"You might be right about that, Ranma," Tofu said as he gave Ranma a pat on the shoulder, "but at least you picked up some rare and valuable techniques from it."
"Sure! The Wu Jian style of Tai Chi Chuan is almost never taught outside China. It was the style used by the last Emperor."
"Huh! I wonder how the old man came to learn it then? I'll bet he knows a lot more than he taught me."
Ranma's face reflected his more cheerful attitude. Tofu smiled at him.
"Why don't you go grab a quick shower, Ranma?" Tofu asked. "Then meet me in exam room three."
"Okay, Doc," Ranma said, "I'll be right with ya."
Ranma took only a few minutes to shower.
"Ready when you are, Sensei," Ranma said as he hopped up on the examination table.
"A-a-a-ah!" Tofu said, brandishing an old fashioned, mercury thermometer. Ranma obediently opened his mouth and tucked the bulb under his tongue. Tofu examined Ranma's eyes very carefully. The dilated and contracted perfectly. There appeared to be no damage to either retina. Checks of Ranma's eardrums were another matter. His temperature was perfectly normal.
"Have you been listening to loud music lately?"
"What happened, Ranma?"
"Last night after you left, I started feelin' really hot, so I hurried outside," Ranma said sheepishly, "I didn't wanna tear up your place again."
"I started givin' off this really strange looking ki," Ranma said.
"Well I never seen nothin' like it before," Ranma said, "It was mostly gold colored, but it had lots of other colors as well."
"Tell me more about it."
"Well, some of it snaked around, like the electrical arcs you see in the movies."
"I see," Tofu said, "What else happened?"
"Well, my ki was so hot, it turned the rain into hot water and steam, then I gave off this really big charge."
"What did you aim it at, Ranma?"
"At the sky. I was afraid I might hurt somebody if...if..."
Ranma's distress became obvious. Tofu placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Easy, Ranma. No one's going to be mad at you over this. What happened next?"
"Well, right after released this big charge, lightning struck the street right in front of me."
"I know it's hard to believe, Doc," Ranma said as he began to fiddle with his pigtail, "but it really did happen."
"Did it shock you?"
"No. I guess because I was wearin' a pair of your geta at the time."
"Did the lightning strike while you were discharging ki, or right after?"
"After. The lightning didn't show up until after the ki touched the clouds."
"Hmm, that is interesting," Tofu said, "Was there anything else?"
"Well this is the weirdest part," Ranma said, clearly encouraged by Tofu's lack of skepticism, "I coulda swore I heard Ko Lon speak to me just as all this stuff started happenin'."
"What did she say?"
"She told me to be careful because what I was doing could be dangerous."
Tofu shook his head and laughed.
"What did she say after the lightning struck?"
"She didn't say nuthin'! She wasn't anywhere around."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Akane was there and she didn't hear Ko Lon and neither of us ever saw her."
This brought Tofu up short. Either Ranma's mental condition was worse than he had feared, or Ko Lon was capable of something he had only read about in ancient legends.
"What's happening to me, Doc?"
"Well, it's hard for me to say for sure about last night, but I suspect you needed to release all that energy you soaked up the night you froze the clinic."
"And I think your control will improve rapidly now that you are healing up physically."
"Are you sure that's all, Doc?"
"Well there are some things you and I need to talk about, but I'd like to finish your examination first, if that's all right."
"Sure, Doc," Ranma said, "You're the only doctor I know that would believe any of this, much less have a chance of treating it."
"Lie on your stomach please, Ranma."
Tofu found nothing exceptionally wrong with his patient physically, other than the young man's ki seemed to be exceptionally strong. Ranma's ki balance was off in a few minor ways which Tofu corrected with shiatsu. His examination of Ranma in his female form was much the same. Physically, Ranma Saotome was one of the best specimens of humanity Tofu Ono had ever laid eyes on. If anything, the boy was too healthy. He should not have been able to recover from his injuries in a mere four days. Ranma's recovery had to be one for the record books--not that Tofu Ono would ever try to publish the story. His well meaning colleagues, being the benevolent idiots that they were, would turn the boy into a guinea pig.
"Well, Ranma," Tofu said with a smile, "The good news is that your body is as fit as any I have ever seen, better than most actually."
Ranma cocked an eyebrow at Tofu.
"So what's the bad news?"
"I don't know that there really is any Ranma, but you and I need to talk," Tofu said, stroking his chin, "Why don't you go change and we can go upstairs where it's a little more private..."
The ear splitting sound of a chipping gun working on the front facade filled the room.
"...And perhaps a little more quiet."
The noise proved to be far less bothersome on the second floor of the clinic building.
"Why did you move out of this place, Sensei?"
"Well, I needed room for my plants and the roof of this building wasn't strong enough to hold everything, so I bought a condominium. They let me install my greenhouses on the roof."
"Tell me how you've been feeling the last couple of days, Ranma."
"Terrible," Ranma said, "I hate not being able to move around."
"Do you miss your morning workouts with your dad?"
Ranma made a sour face. "Well...I kinda miss the workout..."
"But not your dad?"
"You got it. I'm so mad at him right now, I don't really need to be sparrin' with him none."
"I thought so," Tofu said, making his voice sympathetic, "He isn't the only one you are angry with right now, is he?"
Ranma's face became sad. "I just wish they'd leave us alone! Lot's of this stuff ain't no fun anymore and Akane needs..."
Tofu held up his hand before Ranma could launch into a full blown rant.
"I can understand that, and that is one of the things we need to discuss."
"There's somethin' bad wrong with me, ain't there?"
"It _is_ serious, Ranma, but not likely to be a major cause of concern if you treat it."
"Me treat it?"
"Yes. I can only do so much. This is a case where you will have to do most of the healing on your own. I can help, but only so much. Most of it will be up to you."
Ranma flopped down on Tofu's ancient couch and stared at the floor.
"I'm listenin', Doc."
"You are dealing with too much stress, Ranma. The stress is what is causing you to have problems controlling your ki and it is what causes you to have nightmares."
"Some of the nightmares have been awful, Doc."
"Yes, I'm sure they have," Tofu said, "What we need to do here is to get you away from the stress for a while until you can sort things out emotionally."
"Tell me the truth. Am I goin' nuts?"
Tofu bit his lip. He always hated trying to explain this sort of thing to a patient. Their reactions to it varied widely and were wildly unpredictable. Ranma was basically a good youngster, but he was nothing if not unpredictable.
"No, not really, but your mind and body are trying to tell you that you need more rest. If you ignore these signs, bad things could happen suddenly."
"I was afraid of that," Ranma said, as he again began fiddling with his pigtail, "I guess that makes me pretty dangerous, doesn't it?"
Tofu laughed. "You were dangerous before all this came up, Ranma. The one thing that made you safe to be around is your sense of honor and your habit of being kind."
"Look, there are two very real dangers here if we let your usual life-style start up all over again. The most immediate one is that you might lose your temper and do something you would later regret."
"Aw, hell, Doc! I been dealin' with that since I was about eight."
"I know, but it has been much more difficult for you since this past Sunday, hasn't it?"
"Ah, only while I'm asleep."
Tofu gave Ranma rueful grin.
"I did notice."
"I really am sorry about tearing up the place."
Tofu let his grin broaden into a full-blown smile.
"Don't worry about it. I'm getting a newly remodeled lobby out of the deal and without ever having to turn it in on my insurance."
"The other very real danger we face is that you could wind up an emotional cripple, like Soun Tendo."
"Oh, man!" Ranma exclaimed. "What happened to make him like that?"
"Without going into the details, Ranma. Soun did not get away from his troubles often enough nor long enough to recover, then his wife died."
Ranma began staring at the floor and fiddling with his pigtail again.
"I think I can understand that," Ranma said in a quiet voice, "Especially about losing his wife."
"Ordinarily, I would prescribe three months of prolonged rest and quiet for a patient such as yourself, Ranma."
Ranma looked up at his doctor sharply.
"I know! It isn't to be expected in your case. So we'll do the next best thing."
"And that is?"
"I'd like for you to stay here for at least another two-weeks without going back to school and another two-weeks after that. If it looks like your emotional condition is improving, maybe then you can return to Tendo-ke."
Ranma pulled a very long face.
"This summer, I think it would be best if you went on a long trip. Spend the entire month away from Nerima if that's possible."
"But what about Akane?"
"Take her with you if she'll go, Ranma. But understand this, if you don't do something about this problem now, it will only get worse and you will be a danger to yourself and everyone around you."
Ranma liked none of this, Tofu could tell and in truth, did not blame the boy at all. Putting one's life on hold until the jitters disappeared had never been easy for any of his patients. Few of them ever fully succeeded.
"Sunday, I thought maybe you and Akane might enjoy visiting a little spot I know out in the country."
"Sure, Doc. It'd be nice to get out of here for a while."
"Maybe you could teach me that kata you were working on this morning."
Ranma gave Tofu a sheepish grin, then as might be expected of Ranma, the boy counterattacked.
"You gonna try it out on Kasumi, Doc?"
Tofu was only temporarily nonplussed.
"Hmm, maybe--unless you'd rather practice with me in your girl form."
"Aw, Doc!" Ranma shouted, "Don't even go there! This mornin' was bad enough!"
The two of them laughed together for a moment.
"I don't guess I should be surprised that you figgered out what that kata is for, should I?"
"Just be sure you have it down pat before you try it on Akane, Ranma. I don't want to have to treat both of you for a concussion."
"Don't worry! I won't use it until I know it's perfect."
"This Wednesday, you and I will go visit a colleague of mine, a Doctor Takahashi."
"What sort of doctor is he? A shrink?"
Tofu smiled. "No, _she_ is a gynecologist."
"She's a kinda what?"
"A gynecologist. A doctor who specializes in medicine for women."
Ranma groaned. "Do I hafta? I thought you said both halves were in great shape!"
"They are, as far as I can tell, but I am not a gynecologist. You need to see one. You probably should have seen one several months ago."
"I don't wanna...Oh!" Ranma blushed. "You're talkin' about _that_."
Tofu nodded his head while being very careful to keep a straight face. Ranma's discomfiture was unsurprising to say the least, and there was no call to rub it in. Much to Tofu's surprise, Ranma took it fairly well. His face went blank for a moment, then he nodded his head at Tofu.
"Yeah, okay," Ranma said calmly, "It just makes sense I guess."
"One more thing, Ranma."
"Try to let go of your anger."
Ranma made a very sour face. "I'll try."
"There is no trying to this, Ranma," Tofu said with a shake of his head, "You must let it go. It will destroy you if you don't."
"You don't know what you are asking," Ranma said through clinched teeth. Ranma's voice was hard and the air temperature began to fall.
"Oh, yes I do," Tofu said, "Remind me this Sunday to tell you about my internship."
"I'll work on it, Doc."
"Work on it real hard, Ranma," Tofu said, "All the power in the world does you no good if you cannot control it."
"Power isn't a good answer, anyway," Ranma said, sounding both dejected and worried. "I don't know what to do."
"You can start by dropping the anger and thinking clearly, Ranma."
"Think?" Ranma asked, "I ain't never had time to think,"
"You've had some training in meditation, haven't you?"
"A little," Ranma said, "Pops didn't think much of it and we didn't stay at that dojo for very long. He said I only needed it to get full control of my breathing."
"Well, too much meditation can be a bad thing," Tofu said with a smile, "but I think now would be a good time to give it another try. It might help."
"Okay, I'll do a little tonight after I study."
"Good!" Tofu said cheerfully, "I'll tell you what! Tai Chi is one of the best relaxation techniques I know of and I haven't had a good partner to push hands with for months. What say you and I spend some time working out together for a few evenings?"
"Sure, Doc!" Ranma said with genuine enthusiasm, "The old man didn't like Tai Chi all that much, but I thought I was learnin' some really useful stuff before we left Chen Village."
"Tonight after dinner then?"
"Good! Now, I think you need to go get some sleep."
"Will it be okay if I just sleep here, Doc?"
"I don't know why not," Tofu said, "In fact, I think you and Akane might actually be a bit more comfortable up here, then I could have my examination room back."
Ranma grinned at his friend and Doctor, "Nabiki said we should move up here and that she'd be sending our camping stuff over tonight."
Tofu chuckled. "No matter what your father told you Ranma, you need to always remember one thing."
"What's that, Doc?"
"Women are almost always a hell of a lot more practical than we men are."
"Yes. Now get some sleep," Tofu said to Ranma with a grin, then hurriedly went downstairs. He realized that it was important that he speak with Akane about what happened the night before. Ranma's communication skills were the exact opposite of his acumen in The Art. Doubtless he needed to know the things Ranma had inadvertently left out of his story.
The dawn of Thursday morning found Prince Haabu sailing through a large grove of trees belonging to the Joketsuzoku. This was no ordinary grove of trees. It was a "Grove of Chi." Every substance on earth reacted in its own, unique way to chi. Of them all, wood had the most useful interactions. It could focus chi. Wood could actually conduct chi and could even be made to absorb and store chi, much in the same way a capacitor could store electricity. So intimate was the reaction of wood with chi that the Japanese word "ki" meant both "chi" and "wood."
Prince Haabu smiled to himself at the thought of these things as he glided over to an ancient cedar and touched its massive trunk with the palm of his hand. "One man's magic is another man's technology," some wise Westerner had once said. Was it the same man that said, "A technology sufficiently in advance of our own will be indistinguishable from magic?" Prince Haabu laughed as he felt the response of the living wood beneath his hand. What would that Westerner have thought had he seen me in this grove today? I have not touched the ground a single time in past hour. Were he here to witness my flight, would he consider me a great technologist or a magician? What do I consider myself? Am I some sort of technologist or am I a magician?
Haabu relaxed his ki and gently settled to the ground at the base of the great cedar. He sat down upon the soft bed of reddish brown needles, then leaned back against the mighty tree, lost in thought.
"Is what we do magic?" He asked aloud to himself.
No, he thought, we deal with natural forces, just as the technologists do. Magic is irrational and calls upon the supernatural. The forces we call upon and use are as real the earth from which this tree draws sustenance. What we do can be measured. We have no freedom from logic. We cannot...Haabu's reverie was broken by the beat of powerful wings. He looked up. The grove was too dense here for an attack from the air. The cedars had been planted by the Three Great Tribes shortly after they had settled in Qing Hai. The trees stood close together and their tops soared a good seventy-meters into the sky. If the Houzanjin wanted to approach him, they would have to land somewhere else first, then make an approach from the ground.
Haabu doubted they wanted to attack him anyway. He wondered who among their number wanted to speak to him and what they would want to know. He did not have to wait long. He could hear the approach of a single Houzanjin. Their gait was unmistakable for anything else, rather like that of a large crane, but with much longer steps. Much to his shock, the Houzanjin proved to be a woman, and a beautiful one at that.
"I apologize for disturbing you, Lord Haabu," The woman said as she knelt, then bowed towards Haabu.
"Stop that!" Haabu said, trying and failing to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "The time for that sort of nonsense passed long ago."
The woman looked up at Haabu, clearly startled by his response to her formalities.
"What do you need of me, Houzanjin?" Haabu asked.
"I wish to speak with you, Lord Haabu," the woman answered and almost bowed again before catching herself. She rose to her feet, then obviously became uncomfortable because this made it necessary for her to look down at Haabu. Looking down upon a person of higher rank had long been a great taboo in the Middle Kingdom.
"So, you think I am so weak that I might be offended by your looking down upon me?" Haabu asked with a smirk, "I fear nothing from you nor anyone, so why should I mind?"
The woman's distress increased dramatically. Haabu waited, wondering what she would do. The Houzanjin loathed sitting upon the ground. If forced them to hold their wings in an uncomfortable position and caused them a great deal of physical stress. The woman took a canteen from her belt, then emptied its contents upon her own head. Haabu felt his jaw go slack with surprise as she changed into a wingless human.
"This cannot be!" Haabu said, nearly shouting. "Surely you are not Saotome's woman."
The transformed Houzanjin shook her head, then gave him a breathtaking smile.
"No, Lord Haabu. I am not Saotome's woman. This body is the product of a Jusenkyo curse."
"Then she is dead," Haabu asked, "drowned at Jusenkyo?
"No, my Lord Haabu. We retrieved her from the pool just before she died."
"I had no idea Safuron was so magnanimous," Haabu said, his voice dripping vitriol.
"He isn't, but he thought he might have further use for the girl," the woman said, "I cannot help but think that he made a fortunate decision."
"So this happened before the battle of Jusendo, eh?"
"Yes, Lord Haabu."
"It's a good thing for the Houzanjin that the girl did not die," Haabu said with a cold edge to his voice, "Saotome would have killed you all."
"He is not that kind of man, Lord Haabu," the woman said, "but he might have kept killing Lord Safuron until he could no longer regenerate and become mortal again."
"Hah! Little enough do you know about dragons, Houzanjin!" Haabu said, with a snort. "What is your name?"
"I am called Kiima, Lord Haabu."
"Well, Kiima," Haabu said, gesturing towards the base of a nearby tree, "You have come a ways to speak with me, so have a seat."
Kiima paused to adjust her clothing, then sat down as Haabu had suggested.
"So tell me, Kiima," Haabu said in a commanding tone, "Who sent you to me?"
"Count Chervil did, Lord Haabu," Kiima said, then added quickly, "I tried your quarters first, but they told me you were here in the grove, charging the trees."
"Hmmph! The old bird isn't one for wasting time, is he?"
"No, Lord Haabu. He is not. There are many matters of pressing concern with which he must contend at the moment. He has little time to waste."
"Mmm, I can see where things may well be difficult for him at the moment. They are difficult for all three of the great tribes. So why does he send you to me?"
"You will soon travel to the Land of Wa, will you not?"
"It is very likely."
"Count Chervil ordered me to present myself to you and request the privilege of joining your party."
Haabu was not surprised at this. It was only reasonable that the Houzanjin would want one of their own to see Saotome and report back. There was also of course, the other things Haabu planned on accomplishing while visiting among the Wa. Count Chervil would undoubtedly want to know what they were and sending a competent helpmate was an excellent way making such discoveries without giving offense.
"I have but one possible objection, Kiima."
"What might that be, Lord Haabu?" The woman asked, her voice revealing her concern.
"If you plot revenge against Saotome, you need to know that I will side with him. He has become my kinsman."
Kiima looked shocked.
"He is of the Musk?"
"No!" Haabu said with a chuckle as he shook his head, "He is becoming a dragon, just as one of my ancestors did before me. He is the only living dragon other than myself. This makes him more of a kinsman to me than if he were a Musk. You must understand this."
Kiima's reaction was something of a surprise. Her shoulders slumped as she began to rub the index finger of her left hand with the thumb and forefinger of her right. Tears came into her eyes.
"I...I could never hurt him," Kiima said, "Not now. Not ever. I will always regret the times that I did try to hurt him."
Haabu scratched his head. What is with Saotome and women? Haabu silently asked himself. I really must learn his technique for dealing with them. It will come in handy one of these days.
"You have fallen in love with him?"
Kiima smiled before answering.
"He is at heart a kind man," Kiima said, "and very handsome, but no. I am not in love with him."
"Then why the regrets?"
"He was fighting for his loved one, my Prince," Kiima said, unable to control a slight quaver in her voice, "there was no spite, or ambition in him. What we did...what Lord Safuron ordered us to do...was wrong."
"Oh, really? What makes you believe these things?"
"I witnessed most of Lord Safuron's battle with him. It raged from the greatest depths of Jusendo to the very peak of Kenseizan, and back down again. He never wanted to kill Safuron, and his reluctance nearly cost him more than his life."
Kiima nodded her head, her eyes sad. "She died for a moment, I think. He screamed out her name in a chi-voice that was heard from here to Heaven. I am not much surprised to learn that he is becoming a dragon."
"That agrees with what I have heard of that little war," Haabu said with a grim little smile, "He called out her name and she returned to life, and to him."
"Yes," Kiima said, "It changed my opinions on a great many things."
"Tell me, Kiima," Haabu asked as he shifted his weight a little, "Do the Houzanjin plan to leave their mountain?"
Kiima took a deep breath to regain her composure before answering.
"We are not all of the same mind on that issue, Lord Haabu."
"Where do _you_s tand, Kiima?"
"We _must_ leave, Lord Haabu," Kiima said with iron in her voice, "We have no other choice."
"But Safuron will not willingly surrender Jusenkyo to the Fools of Beijing, Kiima."
"We will not need him if we choose the right sort of place, my Prince." Kiima seemed to take a keen interest in the mat of needles upon which they sat. Haabu was little surprised. She had just spoken out against her liege lord. Such an act was punishable by death.
"Hmm, you demonstrate both wisdom and courage in a single sentence, Kiima," Haabu said gently, "I am impressed."
Kiima took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Would you think of me that way had I spoken out against you?"
"No," Haabu said in emphatic tones, "not hardly! I would be offended and annoyed, but the day of unlimited rule by a single person is long gone. I wonder now if such rule ever made good sense."
Kiima stared at Haabu in open-mouthed shock.
"You have heard of my two remaining subjects, have you not?"
"Yes, Lord Haabu," Kiima said in a tiny voice, "They are famed warriors."
"But they are not so famous for their ability to think, are they?"
"No," Kiima said with a giggle, "they are not."
"Perhaps you do not realize that they are not that way for a lack of brains," Haabu said, unaware that his voice was growing a bit loud, "but that their chief trouble is that they have been taught and trained from an early age to rely upon me to do all the thinking. They never do anything unless ordered to and they never think of anything on their own. Now I ask you, what ever gave anyone the notion that a single man could do all the thinking for thousands?"
Kiima bit at her upper lip as she looked at Haabu. He knew this to be a sign that she wanted to speak, but would not.
"I will be in command of the expedition to the Land of Wa," Haabu said in firm tones, "Make no mistake about that, but if you travel with us, I will expect you to say what is on your mind. I will expect you to think for yourself. I will expect you to make recommendations whenever you think they are needed and above all, I will expect you to speak up whenever you think something can, or should be done a different way. Do I make myself clear?"
Kiima smiled and it took Haabu's breath. No wonder Saotome was offended that day, he thought. I will be certain to apologize to her in his presence. What was her name? He could not now remember.
"What was the name of the girl you cast into the pool, Kiima?"
"Her name is Akane, Lord Haabu, Akane Tendo."
"Will you do me a service, Kiima?"
"Only if it is honorable, Lord Haabu," Kiima said with a smile.
Haabu chuckled in spite of himself.
"Help me choose a gift for Akane Tendo," Haabu said, "I owe her an apology."
"I would be pleased to help with such a task, Lord Haabu," Kiima said, "May I ask you a question?"
"When will we be leaving?"
"Before the next week is out, I should think. Paama is as little inclined to waste time as Count Chervil."
"Then perhaps we should begin looking for gifts today."
"I think that is an excellent idea, Kiima," Haabu said as he rose, then offered her his hand. Much to his surprise, she took it and rose to her feet. Haabu struggled to keep his gaze from going below her chin. It wouldn't do to become mesmerized at the moment. He liked this woman for more than her looks. He looked forward to finding out more about her, even if she was little older than himself.
"Walk with me in the grove for a while first, Kiima," Habuu said, "There are a number of trees I have yet to visit and I do not get to come here often."
"I would be both honored and pleased to accompany you, my Prince," Kiima said as she took Haabu's arm. Haabu found that he liked the feel of her by his side. He liked it very much. Perhaps he liked it too much. Ah, well! Another day, another test, he thought. Life is like that. With a shrug, he extended his aura so that it would bathe the trees.
"You came here just to visit with the trees?"
"After a fashion, yes," Haabu said in harsher tones than he intended to use. Kiima's question had put him on the defensive. "What do you know of chi, and the way it interacts with wood?"
"Not that much really," Kiima answered, "I know that some pieces of wood are a great deal more useful than others. Most of them come from trees that grew on sacred ground. Why?"
"Have you ever wondered why the wood made of trees grown on sacred ground behaves in such a way?"
"No, not really," Kiima said, "I assumed it was because the gods visit such places."
Haabu gave Kiima a wry smile. "Not really. The real reason is that the monks who tend such grounds very often have a powerful chi, and know how to use it."
"Oh, really?" Kiima asked sounding somewhat surprised, "What happens? Do they use their chi to help the trees grow?"
"Very often they do, yes," Haabu said, "but more importantly, the trees are exposed to human chi on a daily basis as they grow."
"So the ability to interact with chi is grown into the wood while it is a living tree!" Kiima exclaimed.
"Quite so," Haabu said with a nod of his head, "The more often the living tree is exposed to strong chi, and the greater the variety of that chi, the more useful the wood made from that tree will be."
"This is a very old grove," Kiima said. Her tone suggested that she had just inferred an awe inspiring fact. "Was it planted for the sole purpose of producing such lumber?"
Haabu nodded his head. "This grove was planted during the second year that the Three Great Tribes settled in this land. This area was originally the face of a sheer, southward facing cliff in those days. Our ancestors spent a year carving this little bowl out of the rock and filling it with soil. They tunneled deep into the mountain until they hit a spring so that water would not be a problem. The mountain behind us shelters the trees from much of the cold and captures the heat of the sun. From the time these trees were planted, this grove has been visited each and every day be persons with powerful chi."
"Then there must be enormous power in these giants," Kiima said sounding overawed. She looked up into the dense canopy overhead and Haabu, quite contrary to his usual habits, stopped for her.
"You might be surprised, about that," Haabu said with a smile, "Cedars like this do not make good reservoirs of chi."
"Then why plant them?" Kiima asked, looking up at Haabu in surprise.
"Because their wood makes an excellent conductor of chi, and can be made into a kind of lens for it," Haabu said as he began fiddling with one of his arm guards. "See the inside of this? It is lined with cedar."
"This helps you use your chi?"
"Yes," Haabu said with a smile, "The cedar allows me far better control than I would otherwise have."
"I see," Kiima said, sounding vaguely annoyed, "Not many people know of this, do they?"
"It is considered privileged information, Kiima."
"So why are you telling me these things?" Kiima asked, sounding worried.
"Because you and I will need to work together," Haabu said, then hesitated as Kiima's eyes locked onto his own, "And there must be trust between us."
Kiima's eyes narrowed slightly. "I am the greatest warrior of the Houzanjin, second only to Lord Safuron himself and am Captain of his Guard, yet none of my instructors ever told me these things, Prince Haabu."
"I am not surprised by that, Kiima," Haabu said with a frown he intended for himself, "Those that hold power live with the constant fear that others may become just as powerful as themselves, so they keep a great many secrets."
"Then you have many secrets of your own, do you not?"
"Yes," Haabu said, giving Kiima a wry grin, "I do. Yet I intend to reveal many of them when the time is right. Secrecy has drawbacks that only disclosure can cure."
They walked on in silence for a few meters. Haabu could tell that Kiima was lost in thought. She is a habitual thinker, this one. Haabu thought to himself, that could good and bad all at one and the same time. Still, I will be glad to have her on this trip. It is difficult to think of everything by oneself. The gloom disappeared suddenly as they walked out from beneath the mighty cedars and found themselves passing through a grove of much smaller trees. These were only a third of a meter thick for the most part, and only eight to ten meters in height. There was more light, but it was filtered into a eerie kind of greenish-gold glow.
"These are the truly powerful trees," Haabu said.
"But they are so much smaller!"
"Yes, but they were planted at about the same time as the cedars. These are boxwoods. The timber from these trees absorbs and retains chi."
"Can it be recovered?" Kiima asked, her eyes growing wide with surprise.
"If you know how," Haabu said. "Here, place your hand against the trunk of this one and tell me what you feel."
"Ahh!" Kiima cried, "It drained me! I could feel it drawing chi out of me."
"Large old boxwoods grown in this way can be quite dangerous," Haabu said, "unless you have been trained in the proper techniques. The yew and the ironwood are much the same."
"Yes, the tree is not native to the Middle Kingdom, and only grows here in this grove," Haabu said, "You have seen the gnarled staffs carried by some of the Joketsu Matriarchs, have you not?"
"Yes, I have," Kiima answered. "Such staffs are made from ironwood?"
"Yes. The ironwood is usually more comfortable for a woman to handle. Boxwood is most often used by men--and dragons."
"Do you use a staff, Prince Haabu?"
"No!" Haabu said a touch more quickly than he intended, "Not for a long time. I trained with one when I was younger, but encountered some trouble with it." Much to Haabu's annoyance, he found himself staring at the palms of his hands.
"Were you injured?"
"You might say that, yes," Haabu told Kiima as he looked her in the eye.
Kiima said nothing, waiting for him to tell his story or not as he saw fit. Haabu was not ready to tell that tale, not to this woman, not now. Even the fact that both bore the curse of Jusenkyo was not enough for him to reveal everything this quickly.
"Come, the seedlings are near here," Haabu said, further annoyed at finding that his mouth had become dry, "After I visit them, we are free to take a meal. Would you join me?"
"Yes of course, my Prince," Kiima said as she again took Haabu's arm. "I'd be delighted."
End of Chapter 5 Part a
Copyright © Don Granberry