Most of the characters in this piece and the setting for it were conceived of by Rumiko Takahashi for her Ranma 1/2 series of Manga. All such characters and the setting are the property of Takahashi-sensei and her licensees. All other characters, except those noted below, are purely fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Many extra special thanks go to my pre-readers for helping to improve this piece.
Prince Haabu, Lord of the Musk, wrapped the fingers of his right hand around the ship captain's neck, then lifted the man with one arm until his feet were half of a meter off the deck.
"You and I have an agreement, Captain," Haabu said in a calm, quiet voice. As he watched the man's face turn blue, Haabu's eyes burned with cold fury. "An agreement I intend to hold you to. Do you understand?"
The captain, unable to speak, did his desperate best to signal agreement.
"Then get these other people off this ship, if you value your life!" Haabu said, grinding his words out between clenched teeth, then dropped the smaller man upon the deck. The captain collapsed to his knees and put his hand to his throat.
"I was told you were fairly reliable," Haabu said, looking down upon the man as though he was a particularly disgusting species of leech. "But I can see that you are greedy to the point of foolishness."
The captain shook his head, then choked out the single word, "Owner."
"Oh, really?" A great many things suddenly became clear in Haabu's mind.
The captain nodded his head.
"Yes, Lord Haabu?"
"Have our people take over the engineering spaces," Haabu said in grim tones. "I must have a talk with our agent and this vessel's owner."
"Yes, Lord Haabu."
"And see to it that the crew removes these other people from the ship."
"Yes, Lord Haabu."
"And have them clean out our quarters before I return."
"Be sure the first mate understands that I will be most upset if I find any filth there."
Kiima grinned unpleasantly.
"I shall make certain he understands the gravity of the situation, Lord Haabu."
"Good," Haabu said with a smile for his second in command. She had proven herself to be a great asset during the long, tedious trip. "I will return as soon as I can. Have word sent to Shan Wa. Tell her to meet me at the house of Wan Li."
Kiima bowed in Haabu's direction as he turned and stamped down the gangway. The crew began herding almost two hundred protesting Chinese down another of the ship's three gangways. They had good reason to protest. Despite having paid exorbitant sums to be smuggled into Japan, they were now being forced to leave the ship. None of them had money left to live on while they waited for the _Rodriquez_ to return.
Less than an hour had gone by when Haabu arrived at Wan Li's offices. Shan Wa was already waiting for him, sitting at a table in the little outdoor cafe across the street.
"Kiima informs me that this fool attempted to modify our agreement without consultation, Lord Haabu."
"Yes, he did," Haabu said, gritting his teeth. "He decided there was no difference between us and the poor, stinking Han paying him for his services. He tried to pack two-hundred or so of them aboard the ship with us."
"While that might have been acceptable for the purposes of this mission, it would never do for him to attempt such a thing with Revered Grandmother and her party."
"I quite agree," Shan Wa said, nodding gravely. "Shall we terminate him as well as our agreement with him?"
"No, I think not," Haabu said. "Unless you happen to know a more reliable piece of scum with whom we may deal."
Shan Wa shook her head.
"I am afraid not, Lord Haabu. This sly fellow is about the best of the lot."
"Then we need to teach him a lesson about the sanctity of agreements--especially agreements made with the Joketsuzoku, yes?"
The diminutive Shan Wa grinned. The sight of her in this state was anything but pleasant. Shan Wa's specialty was interviewing prisoners and she was only a decade or so younger than Ko Lon.
"You are quite correct, of course, Lord Haabu," Shan Wa said. "Shall we go in and see him now?"
"It is a thing best done quickly," Haabu said. "The tides will not wait."
Shan Wa nodded her head, then led the way across the street. Once inside they found themselves being greeted by Wan Li's male secretary. He was an irascible sort of fellow, bald headed, shaped like a big boulder with bulging muscles, beetling brows and a heavy, lower jaw. Wan Li had chosen him for the job because he could intimidate most people without raising his voice.
"Wan Li is too busy to see you now," the man said in a growling voice. "Come back in two hours."
"I am afraid that such an arrangement would be most unsuitable in these circumstances," Shan Wa said in a mild voice, while her body language suggested the forthcoming fall of hell-fire and brimstone.
Wan Li's secretary stared at the regally silent Haabu then glanced nervously at Shan Wa. He licked his lips before speaking.
"He is too busy, I tell you! Go away! Come back in two hours."
Haabu formed a small ki-blade off the tips of his fingers on his right hand, then sliced a narrow strip of wood off the two-inch thick piece of oak forming the counter-top between them and the secretary. Haabu caught the strip before it could fall to the floor and began to examine it closely.
Wan Li's secretary gulped, then said, "Right this way, please." He opened the half-door in the counter and invited them in with a wave of his hand. Haabu handed him the strip of oak with a chilly smile. The secretary gulped again.
"Thank you, my good fellow," Haabu said, then grinned again as the man's knees began to knock together. As Shan Wa opened the door to Wan Li's office, the secretary scrambled out a side door.
Wan Li's office was crowded with several of his associates. They were busily counting their way through large stacks of yuan and weighing the jade with which the Joketsuzoku had paid for the ship. There was enough value in the jade alone to make the man a multi-millionaire in the United States. Gram for gram, jade is worth more than diamonds and the Joketsuzoku had paid him with the deep green, fine-grained variety of jade called "Imperial Jade." Diamonds of the first water are mere trash alongside such stone, especially in China.
"Would you gentlemen excuse us for a moment, please?" Shan Wa asked in her driest voice. "We need to have a word with Wan Li."
The other men took one look at Haabu's face and decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor. Wan Li made the mistake of trying to bluster, "How dare you enter my offices without invitation! I should ... "
"Shut up before your greed and atrocious manners cost you your life, Wan Li," Shan Wa said in a cold voice, cutting his tirade short.
Wan Li took one look at the irate Haabu, floating a half-meter above the floor, and decided that perhaps it might be wise to hear what the tall young man had to say.
"You have failed to live up to the terms of our agreement, Wan Li," Haabu said. His voice put one in mind of a saber sliding out of its scabbard.
"Terms?" Wan Li asked, then gulped at the hard, dry knot forming in his throat. "Which terms?"
"We paid you quite well for passage to the Land of the Wa," Haabu said, each word slicing into Wan Li's already frayed nerves like so much sharp-edged glass. "We were to have exclusive use of the ship and the services of its crew for the period of one month."
"Well ... yes ... but ..." Wan Li stammered, "that did not exclude me from shipping cargo in the vessel."
"Two-hundred poor, unwashed Han trying to escape this miserable country do not fall into my definition of cargo, Wan Li," Haabu said, his eyes now burning with murderous intent.
"I told the captain to quarter them in the cargo hold!" Wan Li wailed. "Did he not follow my instructions?"
"There is no room in the holds, you cursed fool!" Haabu said with a hiss in his cold, quiet voice. "There is the additional problem of attracting the attention of the authorities upon our arrival in the Land of the Wa, or had you not considered that?"
"Ah, remember that we agreed that the authorities there would be your pro ... " Wan Li stopped speaking when he felt a warm trickle slide down his neck, then mingle with the nervous sweat beneath his collar. The skin just below his left jaw began to sting. It was then that he realized that Haabu had formed a ki-blade and was holding its incredibly sharp edge against his neck.
"Enough of your obfuscation and circumlocution, Wan Li," Shan Wa said in a very calm voice. "You agreed to provide us with the exclusive use of a ship for the price we paid. You have received your payment and it was a rather handsome one at that. We expect full use of the vessel and the services of its crew, as per our agreement."
"Of course, of course!" Wan Li said, with a very nervous smile. "We made a little mistake, that's all. The ship is yours for the next month, just as you say."
Shan Wa gave Wan Li a warm smile, but Haabu did not remove the one-molecule thick ki-blade from his neck.
"Thank you, Wan Li," Shan Wa said, "I must say you have proven most gracious under trying circumstances."
"You're welcome?" Wan Li squeaked out.
"What of the Han you sent aboard my ship?" Haabu asked coldly.
"Oh, they can wait for the _Rodriquez_ to return," Wan Li said, sounding as cheerful as he could. "They are just another bunch of malcontents searching for greener pastures."
A dangerous tic appeared in Haabu's face. Wan Li gasped as the ki-blade bit a little deeper into his flesh and the trickle of blood became a steady rivulet. The front of his shirt began turning bright red as the increased flow of blood ran down into his collar and began soaking into his clothing.
"Your treatment of them makes you appear most unreliable," Haabu said.
Wan Li was now at a complete loss.
"While they are not any part of our business, strictly speaking," Shan Wa interjected, "your treatment of them alarms us. Putting them aboard the same ship as our people invited risks we have no wish to take."
"And leaving them here unattended invites trouble as well," Haabu said, his eyes narrowing. "It would be operationally sloppy."
Wan Li gulped, then tried to take a deep breath before speaking. The feel of a sharp edge sliding further into his flesh made him cut his breathing short. "I have powerful friends, you know."
"Oh, we know who your partners are, Wan Li," Shan Wa said. "We also understand that your little empire lasts only so long as their anonymity is safe. Perhaps we should discuss this matter with them?"
"No!" Wan Li cried out. "No, I think we can find a way to handle this situation without that."
"Then you will find an out of the way place for the Han to stay until they can catch another ship?" Haabu asked.
Wan Li looked surprised.
"And of course you will see to it that they are properly fed and receive any medical care they might need, correct?" Shan Wa asked.
Wan Li looked outraged.
"Why should I?"
"Because we do not want two-hundred or more loose ends, in the form of desperate Han wandering about Shanghai while we try to take care of business!" Haabu said. His voice had picked up a faint rumble, like distant thunder. Wan Li paled as Haabu's ki-blade bit a little deeper.
"I hadn't considered any of that," Wan Li said, his face very pale and his voice shaking. "You should have mentioned it."
"A man in your business should not need such reminders, Wan Li," Haabu said with heartfelt disgust in his voice. "You have grown fat and complacent."
Wan Li wet his pants as tears began streaming down his face.
"Think of it this way, Wan Li," Shan Wa said with a warm smile and cold eyes. "You have already benefited greatly by doing business with us in the past. You will benefit a good deal more now and in the future, provided things do not go awry."
Hope began to faintly light Wan Li's face.
"Should things go awry however," Shan Wa said in a calm, even voice as she kept her cold eyes and ingratiating smile fixed upon Wan Li's face, "it would be most unfortunate for many people. Sadly, it would be very unfortunate for you and your silent partners."
"I ... I ... understand," Wan Li managed to stammer out. Much to his relief, the ki-blade disappeared. It was not withdrawn. It simply disappeared.
"I am most gratified to hear that you do," Shan Wa said, allowing her smile to grow wider as her eyes grew colder. "You will also understand that it will be necessary for me to work closely with you on some of these matters."
Wan Li looked rather nonplussed at this, but a glance at Haabu's merciless face convinced him to maintain his silence. He simply nodded his head in response.
"I will leave three of my men here with you, Shan Wa," Haabu said without removing his gaze from the long-suffering Wan Li. "They lack subtlety, but they are most formidable warriors, being Joketsu trained."
"Thank you, Lord Haabu."
Wan Li collapsed into his chair, obviously resigned to the fact that he would now be closely watched by Shan Wa and her fellow tribesmen. He began dabbing at the cut on his neck with a clean towel.
"I will remain here and make certain that Wan Li's associates do not cheat him," Shan Wa said to Haabu. "After the money is counted out, we will see after the Han."
"Farewell, Shan Wa," Haabu said with his lips. His face said, "Watch your back!"
"May the wind be at your back, Lord Haabu," Shan Wa said in answer, "and the seas calm."
"Hmmph!" Haabu snorted. "I think I shall avoid standing at the forepeak on this trip. The seas around The Middle Kingdom are ever restless."
Shan Wa chuckled, then nodded her head in agreement. Haabu hurriedly made his way back to the _Rodriquez. She looked around the room at the piles of money and other valuables, then sighed.
"Well," she said aloud to no one in particular, "a Sunday afternoon spent counting money can't be all bad."
"Just one more blast and we'll be out of here, Jack!" Ryouga said over his shoulder, then returned to examining rock in front of him. They had not meant to break out of jail on Sunday afternoon. Ryouga had simply gotten them lost on their way to the prison cafeteria. It had been an accident. Now, a week later, they were still trying to find their way back to the jail in hopes of straightening things out with Japanese authorities. Only three days had passed as time is counted in Tokyo, but the pair had no way of knowing this.
"Yeah, okay, Hibiki, but wait a second and ... "
The solid granite wall in front Ryouga erupted into thousands of sharp pieces that whizzed about the cavern amidst vast clouds of swirling dust. Lacking Ryouga's phenomenal durability, Jack Burton did his best to shelter behind a boulder. The dust clogged his nostrils and made him cough violently, something he definitely did not need, given the number of wounds from which he already suffered. Ryouga had been right about this most current blast being the last one they needed. Sunlight began streaming through a large hole in the stone wall.
"OW! Ya did it to me again, Hibiki! I keep tellin' ya! Ya gotta give me time ta ..."
"Come on, Jack!" Ryouga cried out as he seized Burton by the collar and began dragging the badly weakened American towards the newly formed exit. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Dammit, Hibiki!" Burton cried out as he felt his already battered body bounce and scrape over a countless number of rocks and other debris. "Take it easy, will ya? That hurts!"
"Sorry, Jack," Ryouga said, sounding only slightly contrite, "but I had to get us out of there."
"Yeah, okay!" Jack said irritably. "Just try to remember that I haven't had the training you've had, okay?"
Ryouga nodded his head then looked around at their new surroundings, as did Burton. They were in a forest of some sort, that was for certain sure, but numerous little cues, the smell of the leaf-litter, the shape of the leaves, the texture of the bark, and the peculiar blue of the sky told them that they were in yet another strange place.
"Where the hell are we now?" the bedraggled pair chorused.
" ... are we now?"
" ... we now?"
" ... now?"
"Please tell me we are NOT back in Oz again, Ryouga!"
"Nah," Ryouga said as he scratched the back of his head. "The echoes are way too sharp for this to be Oz."
"Well it for damned sure isn't Kansas anymore, P-Chan!"
"Will you not call me that?" Ryouga shouted.
" ... call me that?'
" ... me that?"
" ... that?"
"Do you recognize anything about this place, Hibiki?"
"Well," Ryouga said, again scratching the back of his head. "I think I was here once before, but it was a long time ago. It's a really weird place."
Burton boggled at this statement.
"Weirder than Oz, you mean?"
"Oh, there's lots of places stranger than Oz," Ryouga said, "Ever been to San Francisco?"
"Okay, okay," Burton said, sounding defeated. "You gotta point there, Hibiki. How weird exactly is the place, that is assuming you really have been here before."
"It's a lot weirder than San Francisco."
"Oh, joy!" Burton replied.
"A lot more dangerous, too."
"More dangerous than Barsoom?"
"Nah, 'bout the same as Barsoom, I think," Ryouga said. "The trouble with this place is that we're not near as light here as we were in Barsoom. I guess you might say it's about like the East Side of Houston, or parts of New York maybe."
Burton began to look very glum.
"Geez, Jack!" Ryouga exclaimed upon examining companion for the first time in several hours. "You're a mess!"
Burton, who was now seated upon an ottoman-sized boulder, looked disgusted as well as pained.
"Oh, well thanks for tryin' to cheer me up, Doctor Hibiki!" Burton said in sarcastic tones. "How long do you think I have to live?"
"A long time if we can get those cuts treated," Ryouga said without so much as a blink of an eye, "but only thirty days or so if we don't. They will turn septic on you."
"I don't suppose you know the way to the nearest clinic, do you Hibiki?"
Ryouga suddenly looked very flustered.
"Somehow, I didn't think so," Burton said with a heavy sigh.
"It is possible that I might be of some small assistance, gentle sirs," a voice said from just out of sight in the dark forest.
Ryouga and Burton were still swiveling their heads in a panicked effort to find the owner of it, when he stepped out into the open. He was a tall old man, perhaps as tall as two meters, with harsh blue eyes that somehow also held a merry twinkle. He had a long, flowing white beard that reached nearly to his knees and a wild shock of white hair which poured out all around the rim of his conical hat. He was leading one of the best horses Burton had ever seen.
"Man! That is one helluva horse!" Burton exclaimed.
The horse walked over to Burton and nuzzled him on the cheek.
"Easy, big fellow!" Burton said, with a chuckle. "You belong to somebody else!"
"No," the old man said, sounding amused, "he belongs to no one but himself and he seldom takes a liking to strangers. From whence do you fine gentlemen hail?"
"My confused looking pal here is from Tokyo, Japan," Burton answered. "I'm from a little town in the Southern United States."
"How interesting!" the old man said, sounding genuinely intrigued. "I've never heard of either place, and I am very well traveled."
"Well, Ryouga, old buddy," Burton said with the usual sneer in his voice. "I guess that means we are thoroughly lost -- Again!"
Half the week disappeared in flash for Nabiki Tendo, yet in another way; the three days seemed to have lasted at least a year. Even without the presence of Ranma and Akane, Nerima's favorite source of excitement, things had not slowed a bit. There was, as always, more than enough weirdness. On top of the normal, background level of chaos, Nabiki had found herself up to her eyebrows in business concerning Kodachi Kuno and one French bicycle maker, who quickly proved himself to be, well, idiosyncratic. The guy definitely had a winner in his bicycle design, but seemed unwilling, or perhaps he was simply unable, to take full advantage of it.
The Frenchman's reluctance was not, as it turned out, strictly a matter of laziness. Patent protection in Japan is, in most ways, superior to that of other countries. On the other hand, acquiring a Japanese patent is an expensive process. Nabiki quickly discovered, much to her dismay, that simply securing patent protection for Thibbideaux's design would consume most of the capital she and her allied investors could put into the venture. That would leave the enterprise without the resources it needed to lease a larger shop, hire craftsmen and buy materials. Oh, and let's not forget the new tooling and the design for same.
Nabiki would have taken a pass on the whole thing had it not been for a bit of Nerimaen weirdness stepping in at the very last second. Kodachi Kuno, it turned out, spoke almost perfect French. Not only did Kodachi speak French; she knew the recipes for several of Thibbideaux's favorite dishes. By Tuesday afternoon, Kodachi had the man literally eating out of her hand. By Wednesday, he seemed to actually enjoy hearing her laughter echo in his shop and was more than willing to let Nabiki take a shot at securing a patent for his design. Wednesday night thus found Nabiki Tendo hard at work over a fresh set of ledgers, working out a business plan. Actually, she was working out more than one business plan.
The primary problem, of course, was money. There were people Nabiki knew from whom she could get the money they needed, but that presented a special set of problems of its own. She had learned about it the hard way the year before Ranma and his father arrived on their doorstep. She and her investors had gotten into a deal that was simply too big for them to see all the way through. She had been lucky in finding Ichiro Kobayashi, rather than falling afoul of some of the other sharks cruising around Tokyo. He had seen to it that she and her investors got their money back. While her associates had been more than happy with this outcome, Nabiki had not been at all happy with it. The idea had been to turn a profit on the affair, not settle for a mere break-even. She had worked herself into the ground putting it all together and Kobayashi swooped in with his mountains of cash, making all the real money. She thought she had heard the last of him, but was surprised a few days later when the older man called and invited her out to lunch on a Saturday.
Nabiki gave her younger-self a smirk in remembering these events. She had accepted Kobayashi's invitation simply because she wanted to give him a piece of her mind. Much to her surprise, she never got the chance. Kobayashi gave her a piece of his mind--a very valuable one. He first annoyed the hell out of her by ordering for both of them without asking her what she would like to have, then let her stew in black silence until their tea had been served.
"So, are you still upset with me?" Kobayashi had asked.
Nabiki had expected any number of things, from a marriage proposal to a job offer as junior clerk in the Kobayashi offices, or perhaps the man had invited her out simply to gloat. She had not expected him to ask this question.
"Yes," Nabiki had said, working hard to keep a tremor out of her voice. "I am! I worked my ass off putting that deal together and never made a single yen from it."
Kobayashi's answering smile had been as cold as the dark side of the moon, but his eyes remained merry.
"You and your partners got your money back, did you not?"
Nabiki had not been able to restrain a frustrated sigh before answering.
"Yes, but that was not why I did all of that work."
Kobayashi seemed to look inwards and then chuckled.
"I know the feeling," he had said. "I had the same thing happen to me when I was your age."
Nabiki was taken back considerably by this revelation. While life in Japan had always been easier for men, no one paid serious attention to a male until he was at least forty -- especially just after World War Two. Kobayashi should not have been able to get into the fix Nabiki and her cohorts had found themselves in. Money and credibility would have been much harder for Kobayashi to come by back in those days. Then again, she should not have been able to get into the fix she and her cohorts had gotten into.
"You remind me very much of my younger self."
"Who bailed you out?" Nabiki had asked. She remembered biting her tongue after asking that question because she immediately realized that she had done more than ask an impertinent question. She had made an admission. An admission that Kobayashi did not fail to notice. He laughed out loud before answering.
"My father," he had told her.
Nabiki must have given him an "I thought so" kind of stare, because Kobayashi's smile broadened even further, even as he waved his hand to put off what he saw as an incoming protest.
"He was not nearly so kind to my friends and me, as I was to you and yours," Kobayashi had told her. "He broke our asses, then threw me out of the house for two years."
Nabiki thought this one over. Had she failed completely, Soun Tendo would not have thrown her out of his house. The bankers would have thrown them all out. What her excitable father might have done after that was not something Nabiki had liked thinking about.
"Perhaps your father did the right thing, Kobayashi-san," Nabiki had said in a contrite voice. "My entire family had not been that far from the same fate when you came along."
"I know," Kobayashi had said with a smirk. "I never invest until I have all the details. Have you come to understand what you did wrong?"
Nabiki began rattling off facts and figures. What those figures had boiled down to was that she and her associates had lacked the capital to see the thing through. What was more, they had never had a hope of acquiring such sums; thus they had been forced to turn to Kobayashi for help. He could have simply cut a deal with their principles and left Nabiki and her partners completely out in the cold. Kobayashi had gone to the trouble of buying them out instead.
"Stupid girl!" Kobayashi had all but shouted. "You are not seeing the forest for the trees!"
Nabiki remembered being on the verge of tears and willing her eyes to remain dry with all her might. Kobayashi had stared at her for a long, silent moment, letting her suffer before continuing.
"You are a very courageous young woman. You are very smart. You have an excellent nose for sniffing out potential profits and you are a brilliant tactician," Kobayashi had said in gentler tones. "You made no mistakes in those areas."
"So where did I go wrong?"
"Your strategy was in error," Kobayashi had said. Enthusiasm had begun to fill his voice as he continued to expound, "This caused you to put the deal together in the wrong order."
"The wrong order?"
"Yes!" Kobayashi said. He had begun to sound like a ten-year-old who had just been given a brand new, toy truck. "What was the single, most essential part of the whole thing?"
Nabiki had rolled this over in her mind. Everything had seemed important to her when she had begun, but one thing had turned out to be crippling.
"The docks down on the south end," Nabiki had said. "There was no way to get enough lumber in or finished pallets out by truck. In the end, we were no better than our competition. Sometimes we were not as good. They had been dealing with the trucking companies a lot longer than we had."
"Are you beginning to understand now how you 'found' me?"
Nabiki remembered feeling outraged. The Kobayashi clan had been in the tug and barge business long before the war. Of course Kobayashi would have realized early on that their little company was in dire straits. He must have known they were going to lose before they themselves had realized it.
"How come you didn't step in and wipe us out early on?" Nabiki had asked. "You could have done that and made more money."
Kobayashi had chuckled at this question.
"It took me quite a while to figure out that Soun Tendo's sole connection to the pallet business was you, his under-aged daughter. You hid your tracks very well, Tendo-san. That was some of the best footwork I ever encountered. Once I discovered that it was a minor who had put this whole thing together, I was fascinated. Watching you struggle turned out to be much more entertaining than making the money."
Nabiki remembered, now much to her embarrassment, that her mouth had fallen open in shock.
"You put up a magnificent fight!" Kobayashi had said, beaming at her.
Nabiki had put her hand over her mouth and blushed furiously. She had turned her face away from Kobayashi in shame. Kobayashi then reached across the table and placed a hand on her arm.
"Courage and drive such as yours are a very rare thing, Tendo-san," he had said to her in gentle tones. "You have nothing of which you need be ashamed. There isn't a businessman in Nerima who was not impressed by what you did. Hell, quite a few of the boys downtown know about you. They ask about you nearly every time they see me."
The tears had begun to flow despite Nabiki's best efforts to control them, but she looked Kobayashi in the eyes anyway.
"They haven't heard the last of me, you know."
Kobayashi had laughed and slapped the table at this.
"Good!" he had cried out with a hoot. "We need more youngsters like you."
Nabiki's formal lesson then being over, Kobayashi proceeded to spend the rest of their leisurely meal regaling her with stories about the deals he and put together, large and small, money-makers and losers. She had learned more from that one encounter than she had learned from any and every book about money she had ever found and read. Yet of all the things she had learned that day, the "Kobayashi Principle" was the one that had burned into her very soul. Never again would she fail to take care of what mattered most, first.
The key to this bicycle deal was a secure patent. With that in hand, she could go to Kobayashi and his friends and still be relatively well assured that she and her friends would get a decent return on their investment. Without the key part of the deal however, they would be far better off if she simply picked up the phone and handed the entire thing to Kobayashi on a platter. He had proven generous with his commissions when she had done that sort of thing in the past. Nabiki had little doubt that Kobayhashi would be ruthless with her if she made the same mistake twice.
If she could find enough capital, enough to actually get the bicycles into production, she and her associates stood to make a great deal more money out of the deal, even if Kobayashi and his friends eventually took over the entire show. The trick was to find the capital they needed to get that far. She needed a large sum of money with a minimum number of strings attached in order to pull that off. If she could, she would earn the respect of more than a few financial powerhouses around town, not to mention shocking a Kuno or two speechless.
Of course, shocking a Kuno speechless was only slightly more difficult than finding fifty million yen with no strings attached, especially given that she was determined to find it without swindling a Kuno.
Nabiki's ruminations and calculations were interrupted by a knock at her door. It was Kasumi. Nabiki had not been surprised when she came back with Tofu on Sunday afternoon. What had surprised Nabiki was that Kasumi no longer spent her nights at Tendo-ke and their father never so much as raised an eyebrow.
"I'm serving dinner now."
"I'll be right there, Sis!"
Nabiki stretched the kinks out of her back as she stood up. One day soon she would be a rich Sybarite. Once that goal was achieved, she would see to it that Kasumi never wanted for anything. In the meantime though, it was time to eat. She made her way downstairs, only to find that they had company, an ugly little man she had never seen before.
Clearly the man was ancient. His face had the appearance of statue left exposed to the elements for a thousand years, yet he was muscled in a way that would have made Arnold Schwarznegger envious. Much to Nabiki's surprise, the old man walked with a very pronounced limp, seeming to have only slight control over his right foot. His skin seemed dirty, even though she could tell he had recently bathed and his thick, grey hair made him look as though he were wearing a cap made of ashes.
"Sensei," Soun said to the powerfully built old man, "this is my second daughter, Nabiki."
"She is quite lovely, Tendo-san," the old man said as he smiled and bowed in Nabiki's direction.
"Nabiki, this is Sensei Ichiro Tetsugo," Soun said. "Among other things, he is a master blacksmith."
Well, Nabiki thought to herself. That explains his appearance. I wonder why he limps. Belatedly remembering her manners, she bowed to the older man in return.
"The pleasure is mine, Tetsugo-sensei," Nabiki said. "Welcome to Tendo-ke."
"Thank you, Tendo-chan," Tetsugo said with a smile. "It is a pleasure to visit. You were quite young the last time I was here."
"Shall we eat?" Kasumi asked cheerfully.
Everyone gratefully sat down and dug into the evening repast with gusto. Genma, Nabiki noted with interest, seemed to be on his best behavior and was actually displaying some rudimentary knowledge of basic manners. She found this puzzling, given that their guest was merely a blacksmith. The conversation over their after-dinner tea offered a dim clue, but only a dim one.
"So, do you have the blood we need?" Tetsugo asked Soun. "We have done as much as we may without it."
The Tendo patriarch closed his eyes and slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. Genma followed suit.
"Blood?" Nabiki asked, sounding vaguely alarmed. "What sort of blood?"
"This sort," a disembodied voice from above the table answered as two brassieres fluttered down through the air, only to settle noiselessly upon the table. The errant lingerie, Nabiki noticed, did bear some rather sizeable stains of a brownish red color. One of them was two cup-sizes larger than the other. No sooner had she taken all this in, than Happosai, whose voice Nabiki had already recognized, gently settled feet first onto the middle of the dining table.
"I thought you were going on a trip, Gramps," Nabiki said.
"I am," Happosai said, sounding irritated, "but I decided to stop by here and check up on things first. Looks like it's a good thing I did."
Both Soun and Genma blanched while Tetsugo merely looked amused by the entire thing.
"Here's the blood you need, Tetsugo," Happosai said as he held up the larger of the two brassieres "How the hell have you been, anyway? Long time no see!"
"I have been quite well, all things considered, Master Happosai," Tetsugo answered as he accepted the proffered item of lingerie. "You are still as spry as ever, I see."
"Oh, well! I do get a catch in my get-along once in while," Happosai said with fake wince as he offered Tetsugo the smaller brassiere. "The big one is the boy's, this one is his student's."
Tetsugo dangled the larger brassiere by one strap, then cocked an eyebrow at Genma. "This is your son's?"
"Urgh! ... Uh ... Ah, well ..." Genma choked, blushed, then glanced around the room as though checking to see if Nodoka were around.
"Of course it's his!" Happosai said with a laugh.
"He must lead a very interesting life, Saotome-san," Tetsugo said. "Would that I could have been comforted so whenever I was made to bleed."
"Oh, you're too right about that, Tetsugo!" Happosai said with a cackle. "The boy certainly does lead an interesting life!"
"So how, pray tell," Tetsugo asked with a grin, "did this happen?"
Soun leapt into the fray.
"Ah, well ... ah ... you see, Sensei it was a ... aaah ..."
"Unusual accident!" Genma interjected.
Happosai guffawed while Kasumi giggled and Nabiki smirked.
"Yes! A series of unusual accidents, actually!" Soun added.
"Say," Happosai interjected, "isn't it about time for the moon to rise?"
"Yes, it certainly is, Master Happosai," Tetsugo said. "Perhaps we had best get started, gentlemen."
Soun and Genma nodded in unison, then the pair of them hastened towards the open shogi of the engawa.
"Don't let these two old slackers fool you now, Tetsugo!" Happosai said in a gleeful tone. "They are both plenty strong, but they are lazy and stupid! Ya have to watch 'em all the time!"
Soun and Genma winced in unison as Tetsugo smiled at the diminutive founder of the Anything Goes School. "I'm sure they'll do just fine, Master Happosai."
"You'll have to see that they do, Tetsugo!"
Soun and Genma beat a hasty exit off the engawa. Tetsugo followed them, giving Happosai a nonchalant wave of the hand as he departed.
Nabiki stood up and stretched her back muscles again. Happosai watched appreciatively as she did so.
"Why don't you go ahead and go now, Kasumi?" Nabiki asked. "I'll take care of the dishes."
"Are you sure, Nabiki-chan?" Kasumi asked, sounding concerned. "You look awfully tired."
"She looks and smells like shark-bait to me!" Happosai interjected, looking as though he might yield unto temptation and bite. Nabiki gave him her level one glare before answering her sister's question.
"I'm fine, Sis! Go on and get out of here."
"Thank you, Nabiki-chan."
"You're welcome, Sis. Give Tofu a hug for me."
"I will," Kasumi said with a smile as she removed her apron and bounded up the stairs.
Happosai watched Kasumi until she disappeared up the stairs, then said in a low voice, "Free at last! Free at last. Thank God almighty! Free at last."
Nabiki gave the old man a questioning look, then began gathering up the dishes. "As if you really cared one way or the other, Gramps."
"You might be surprised, Nabiki-chan."
"I doubt it," Nabiki said. "You've been going over my books, haven't you?" Nabiki asked as she carried a load of dishes towards the kitchen.
"You knew I would," Happosai answered as he followed her into the hallowed space.
"Sure, I knew. Did you find the right books?"
"Yes," Happosai said, "And I found the ones that tell me you are thinking of taking another swim with the sharks."
"You underestimate me, Gramps."
"Do I now?" Happosai asked, sounding amused. "I hear you've founded your own school of capitalism."
"Do tell!" Nabiki said with a sneer in her voice.
"They say that you have even taken on a Kuno as your first student."
"It's just a swindle to keep Kodachi away from Ranma, Gramps."
"Oh, really?" Happosai asked with a skeptical note in his voice. "Is that why you're entertaining the notion winging a deal with fifty-million put to the touch?"
"I worked that out just for drill, Gramps," Nabiki answered with a cold smile. "Think of it as kata."
"Pretty tough kata, if you ask me."
"What we really hope to do is to secure the patents for this new type of bicycle," Nabiki said, pausing so that she could look down at Happosai and not run into anything. "Then we can get a decent cut from the big boys when they move in."
"But you'd get a much bigger cut if you had that fifty-million, right?"
"Sure, but what are the odds? Anyone with fifty-million doesn't need me or my partners."
"How long before you have the patents?"
"Six weeks or so, I think. We're investing enough to expedite the process. Why?"
"Well the timing might work then."
"What timing?" Nabiki asked, now truly puzzled.
"Wait a week or so, then go talk to Ko Lon," Happosai said, looking very serious. "You might just get your fifty-million in risk capital."
"Ko Lon?" Nabiki asked. "Where the hell would she get that kind of money?"
"Oh, it's available to her, or will be soon."
"In a couple of weeks, huh?"
"A little longer, maybe."
"So what do I do? Wait until she suddenly closes her restaurant and buys a mansion?"
"Oh, you'll know it when the time comes," Happosai said.
"Oh, really? How would I know anything about what goes on in Little Amazonia?"
"Because what's important is going on in Big Amazonia and I have forewarned you about it, Nabiki-chan."
Nabiki placed her hands on her hips, then stared down at Happosai.
"Whatever you say, Gramps."
"Keep your eyes and ears open and you'll realize I'm telling you like it is, Nabiki."
"Okay, Gramps. I will. Anything else you want to give me notice about?"
"Nope. I already told you when I'd be back," Happosai said as he made for the outer door of the engawa.
"What's the story on this Tetsugo guy?
"Too much to tell right now, Nabiki-chan," Happosai said, "but you've probably read about him in class."
"Which class?" Nabiki asked with a roll of her eyes. "Ancient History?"
Happosai gave Nabiki an enigmatic smile. "If you were to be real, real nice to him," Happosai said as his smile became a lascivious grin, "he might make you a pretty or two. He does beautiful work, you know."
"I think I'll pass, Gramps," Nabiki said.
"Suit yourself, then."
"I always do."
"Be seeing you, Nabiki."
"See ya, Gramps."
After Nabiki finished with the dishes, she returned to her room only to find a thick envelope lying atop the open ledgers on her desk. Inside were a million-yen in crisp, new bills and a note from Happosai, which read simply, "I want in." Nabiki could not help but feel flattered.
Akane flopped down in one corner of the potting shed, completely out of breath. She wiped hopelessly at her face with the sleeve of her gi. It helped very little. She and her clothes were wringing wet with sweat.
"How can I sweat this much when it's this cold?" she muttered aloud. Ranma, who was standing in the middle of the rough floor and watching her, gave her one of his smart-alec grins. He looked completely relaxed and though his skin was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration, he showed not the faintest sign of fatigue. Akane gritted her teeth with frustration, but kept her silence. She had asked for this and Ranma had given her fair warning. There was nothing to do now but to deal with the results. Only, the results had not been at all what she had expected.
Tofu and Kasumi had returned to Nerima late Sunday evening after Tofu and Ranma had gone for a long walk together. Ranma had returned from the walk looking excited.
"Tofu showed me the perfect place for us to work out in, Akane!"
"Yeah! It's a potting shed."
"A potting shed?" Akane asked in an alarmed voice. "How are we going to work out in anything that small, Ranma? What have you got in mind, you pervert?"
Ranma had given her an evil grin before answering. "The Ono raised tomatoes here a long time ago, Akane. The potting shed is half-again the size of your dad's dojo."
The next day she had helped Ranma move all the pots, potting soil and tools into the barn. The barn was already crowded with old equipment steadily gathering dust. They had been careful to put everything they moved in one general location so that they could easily find it and return it to its original place before they left for home. It had been fairly strenuous work, but it had gone a long way towards loosening Akane's muscles. She had gone to bed that night looking forward to beginning the okugi. Something she had almost despaired of ever learning. The actual beginning though, turned out to be something of a disappointment.
"Okay, Akane," Ranma had said with a grin on his face, "Let's see ya do the first kata of the beginner's sextet."
"I learned that one three days after I started walking, Ranma."
"So? Now you're a beginner all over again."
With a shrug, Akane had run through the kata. It had been a long time since she had done it, so she bobbled in a couple of places, but in the main, her muscles remembered it better than her mind did. She knew though that Ranma would not settle for anything less than perfection.
"Again?" Akane asked.
Ranma answered with a nod of his head. Akane ran through the kata again. Much to her chagrin, she realized that she was not performing it as well as she should have been. She asked Ranma for permission to do it again. He smiled and nodded. Akane performed the kata again, and again, and again for the next six hours with only one or two short breaks.
Today she was still performing that very first kata of the beginner's sextet. She had performed it repeatedly all day and could feel down in her very bones that she was not getting it right. Worse, she now realized that she had not ever been doing it perfectly. About mid-morning, Ranma had taken to moving with her so that he could see every move she made, but had yet to actually correct any of her moves as her father did when she first began to learn the kata. Now her frustration was beginning to overwhelm her.
"What has happened to me!" Akane cried out.
Ranma laughed out loud. "Welcome to the first secret of the okugi, Akane."
"You have finally learned enough to recognize what you have been doing wrong."
"So how come you're not correcting me?"
Ranma shrugged. "You been doin' a pretty good job of that on your own -- except for your breathing."
"So why aren't you helping me with that?" Akane asked, sounding just a bit irritated.
"One thing at a time, Tomboy!" Ranma said, as his smart-alec grin returned to his face. "Breathin' is really complicated. We'll work on it all by itself later."
Akane stifled the tiny flames of annoyance she felt in her heart before they could become a general conflagration, then rose to her feet.
"I'm ready to try again."
"Okay," Ranma said genuine admiration in his face, "Begin!"
"You're in the way, Ranma."
"Dammit! I said, BEGIN!"
Akane threw the first punch of the kata. It should have landed on Ranma's solar plexus, but he wasn't there. He was in alignment to receive the punch all right, but he had backed up just barely out of her reach at the very last possible second. Akane found this distracting and faltered.
"Don't stop!" Ranma shouted.
Akane carried on with the rest of the form while Ranma continued to stay in alignment with every blow and kick. Occasionally, Akane would actually touch his clothing with a knuckle, a heel or the ball of her foot. Having Ranma in front of her for every blow and kick ceased to be a distraction. Her focus began improving by degrees. Her mind suddenly began to work with her muscles, apprehending and comprehending aspects of the kata she had never so much as considered before. The concepts of distancing and timing, something she thought she fully understood were now being revealed afresh to her in a way she had not previously recognized. She began to perform the kata better than she ever had in her entire life, even as her heart sank in despair.
"I have so much to learn!" Akane wailed as she finished the kata.
Ranma collapsed to the rough floor of the potting shed and laughed.
"It's not funny!"
"Yes it is, too!" Ranma gasped out between guffaws.
Akane became angry with him.
"Did your father laugh at you when you went through this?"
Ranma nodded his head as he laughed some more, then gasped out, "And I didn't understand why until today."
"Ranma!" Akane cried out. Her worry and concern caused her voice to crack. "We don't have ten years!"
Ranma sobered up then rolled around into a sitting position. His motions were so smooth and so swift that the mind refused to believe what the eye reported. That could not have happened, so it did not happen, right? Wrong! Akane knew it was wrong. Ranma was not merely fast. He was deceptively fast. This deceptive speed and smoothness had cost more than one of Ranma's opponents dearly.
"We don't need ten years, Akane," Ranma said in a serious voice. "All ya hafta do is keep workin' as hard as you are now and we'll make it with time to spare."
Akane blew out her breath in frustration. "How the hell can I do that and have a life outside the dojo?"
The chills started at the back of Akane's heels, rushed up the backs of her legs, rippled a little as they passed over her buttocks, then shot up her spine until they formed a hard, freezing peak, top dead center of her scalp. They remained there for several seconds, then shot back down her back, only to make her feel as though she had frost-bitten toes as they slammed into her heels and shot forward.
"It's a way of life, Akane," Ranma said, grinning at her.
Indeed, it was a "way of life." A way of life which Akane sincerely believed she had been living until this very moment. Now she suddenly felt as though she was a fish out of water.
"Feel like a fish out of water?" Ranma asked.
Akane nodded her head.
"Ya look like it," Ranma said, then put his hands to his head and began working is lower jaw so that his mouth opened and shut in a ridiculous way. Much to Akane's horror, she then realized that Ranma was mimicking what she was doing at that very moment. The chills now began to evaporate, supplanted by the heat of a five-megaton blush. Ranma began laughing again.
"Ranma! Akane!" Nodoka called from the back of the farmhouse. "Dinner is almost ready!"
Ranma opened the door, allowing the chill damp of the stiff, north wind to drive shocking needles of cold through Akane's sweat-soaked gi. "Thanks, Mom!" Ranma shouted then shut the door. He turned and grinned at Akane.
"Come on, Tomboy, let's go get cleaned up. I want your appetite in full gear by the time we reach the table."
"Why do you keep insisting that I eat so much?" Akane asked.
"You're too thin to hold up to the training," Ranma said, "I want ya ta gain weight."
"But I'll get fat!" Akane protested as she followed Ranma out of the potting shed and into the sharp, grinding teeth of the cold wind.
"You'll gain weight, Akane, but ya won't get fat!"
"Yes I will, too!"
"Akane," Ranma said sounding slightly exasperated, "Is my girl half fat?"
"Well, no, not exactly."
"Just fat in the right places, right?"
"It don't hurt ya to eat a lot when you're workin' this hard. Your body needs the food."
"What happens when we get to be our parents' age?"
"Oh, that's easy!" Ranma said as he held the back door of the house open for her. "We just remember what they look like every time we think about quittin' the Art."
Akane shuddered, part from fear, part from the cold wind finding its way through her dripping gi, then rushed into the house. She stopped a short distance inside the mud-room and waited for Ranma to get close to her, then whispered, "So what does Ranko think about eating so much?"
"Shh! Mom might hear you."
"Well? What does she think?"
Akane watched as the subtle change occurred in Ranma's eyes. He grinned at her and said, "I think you need another good rubdown tonight."
Akane shivered again, but not from the cold this time.
"What's that got to do with what we're talking about?"
"It's got to do with you tryin' too hard and gettin' uptight, Akane."
This brought Akane up short.
"You gotta learn to relax."
"You mean even that is training?"
"Sure, why not? Let's go get cleaned up. I'm starving."
Ranma, Akane discovered, had been right about getting cleaned up before sitting down at the table. The sight and smell of food turned her into Pac Woman made flesh. Akane remained unaware of this until Nodoka made a funny little noise in her throat. Akane looked up to find Nodoka looking somewhat disturbed and Ranma grinning.
"Perhaps you should try eating a little more during luncheon, Akane dear."
Akane felt her eyes widen with shock.
"I'm sorry, Mother," she said. "I didn't mean to be rude."
"Well you weren't exactly being rude, dear, just eating like a ... like a ... "
"Eating like a man?" Ranma asked cheerfully.
"Yes," Nodoka said. "Very much so."
"It's okay, Mom. I've been workin' her like she was a man."
Akane felt her face redden and tried to fight of the urge to shovel more rice into her mouth.
"Are you sure that's wise, Ranma?" Nodoka asked.
"If she's gonna pass the test, Mom, she's gotta do the work. There ain't no way around it that I know of."
"I see," Nodoka said, still sounding somewhat doubtful.
"Eat, Akane!" Ranma said in an insistent voice. "Ya gotta keep your strength up."
Akane gave Nodoka a questioning look.
"I'm sure Ranma is correct, my dear," Nodoka said. "So long as you are training this hard, perhaps it is best that you eat as much as you can."
Akane felt the tension around the table begin to dissipate.
"I apologize for interrupting," Nodoka said.
"Not at all, Mother," Akane said. "I was getting a bit carried away."
"No, I'm just a bit behind the times, is all," Nodoka said. "The idea of a girl training in the Art in the same fashion as a man is new to me. I had not thought the matter completely through. Please eat."
Akane gratefully returned to inhaling her meal, and the meal of several other persons not present. Much to her dismay, she was fairly certain she had consumed half-again as much as Uncle Genma might have had he been at the table.
Nodoka began cleaning up the wreckage and Akane hastened to help out.
"No dear," Nodoka said, waving Akane off. "You should go tend to your school work now."
"But Mother Nodoka, I ..."
"No buts!" Nodoka said, with mock sternness in her voice. "Studies take precedence over dishes. You'll wash a store full of them in your turn."
Akane impulsively gave Nodoka a hug. Nodoka stiffened with surprise at this, but then relaxed and hugged Akane back.
"I'm beginning to believe that you are exactly what my son needs in a wife, Akane-chan," Nodoka said in a soft whisper. "But you will need to be patient with me. His is a very strange life and I find adjusting to it difficult at times."
"Don't worry, Mother," Akane said, smiling. "It becomes routine after a year or so." The two of them then shared a giggle.
"Run along, dear," Nodoka said. "We both have much to do."
Ichiro Tetsugo dropped two brassieres upon the glowing, freshly smelted bloom of wrought-iron Genma Saotome had just dragged out of the fire with a pair of tongs. He watched intently as the lingerie flashed into flame upon touching the yellowish-orange surface of the newly born metal. He continued to watch until there was a subtle, almost imperceptible change in the color of the glowing iron, then tapped the anvil twice with his half-kilo hammer. Ting! Ting! Genma swung his five-kilo maul up to the ready position. Tetsugo tapped the glowing bloom, leaving an easily perceptible dent in its surface. With a loud grunt of effort, Genma swung his mighty hammer and brought it down dead center upon the dent, creating a stinging cloud of sparks. Tetsugo swung his hammer again, creating a dent in the surface of the bloom in another spot. Soun grunted and swung with a hammer the same size as Genma's. Sparks showered them all as Soun obliterated the dent Tetsugo had made. On and on they went, long into the night by turns, their rhythm as steady and monotonous as that of a finely made clock.
The bloom had to be brutally beaten until its impurities had been driven out, forming a billet half the bloom's original size. By then it would be reduced to pure wrought-iron. Only then could they begin the serious work of the hammer. That of driving the billet's microscopic granules of carbon into solution while forcing the wrought-iron's layers of ferro-silicates into fibrous structures, surprisingly similar to wood.
The sparks flew until the bloom assumed a deep red glow and Tetsugo tapped the anvil once. Genma dropped his hammer and seized a pair of tongs as Soun rushed to the handle of the bellows. With yet another grunt and a mighty heave, Genma rolled the bloom back onto its searing bed of glowing coals. Soun began pumping the bellows and the three men were immediately surrounded by clouds of bright sparks and swirls of billowing smoke. Tetsugo pointed at a spot on the right side of the bloom and Genma began stacking firewood on that spot. Flames roared. Tetsugo indicated another spot by pointing, not speaking, and Genma added wood there. The flames roared high into the night. Tetsugo nodded his head and Genma joined Soun at the bellows.
Tetsugo watched the bloom until he was certain that its glow had begun to brighten again. Satisfied that the fire was doing its job, he clapped his hands and began to recite aloud an ancient prayer. It was in the harsh, sing-song language understood only by master smiths and Shinto priests. The prayer was so ancient that no one knew who had spoken it first. It had never been written down, passed down through the ages by rote memory from master smith to apprentice. The fiery taming of good metal was always more than just a serious business. It is a sacred business and only the dedicated, who are pure in heart, are allowed to carry it with them into the future. For there is a great deal more to the process than merely converting wrought-iron into austenitic steel, never mind the claims to the contrary made by metallurgists.
Xian Pu would never admit it aloud, but sparring with Mu Suu had become a significantly greater challenge than it had been in the past, especially at the end of a long day's worth of hard riding. Mu Suu had for a long time possessed the advantage of reach on her, but here of late he had improved his speed by a considerable margin as well. Even more troublesome was the fact that his attacks were now much more precise than in the past. Better than fifty-percent of his blocks were now highly effective, whereas before he often mis-time his blocks, allowing her to get inside his guard. She did not mind this very much. She needed the best workouts she could get. Losing Ranma Saotome to the Tendo girl was going to cause her no end of grief, no matter how or what the Council of Elders ruled upon the matter. Sooner or later, Xian Pu would face a long string of arduous challenges from her sister tribesman. She intended to be ready for them.
She ducked Mu Suu's spinning back kick, a great move for a tall, lanky warrior like Mu Suu, provided the attack landed. It was not so great if the attack was blocked or dodged. Xian Pu had dodged this time because it let her get inside Mu Suu's formidable reach. He needed to improve his ability to block body-blows anyway. Two, sinuous, sliding steps put her within perfect striking distance of the tall boy and she dropped into the horse-rider's stance long enough to pound his abdomen like it was a snare drum. Well, perhaps as though it was a hollow log. Mu Suu had hardened up considerably since arriving in Japan as well. No doubt, the fights he had picked with Ranma had gone a long way towards toughening him up.
Mu Suu used a sweeping forearm block to knock Xian Pu's fists off target, just before stepping back a pace and assuming the crane fighting stance. Xian Pu, recognizing that she was now in the most effective part of Mu Suu's striking range, had to make a split-second decision. Follow him or step back? She stepped back. Stepping forward would have left her vulnerable to a front snap kick. She was still quite vulnerable to a hapkido-kick, but that maneuver would have required the lanky Mu Suu to take hopping step then throw a high, front snap kick. He had never been fast enough to pull that off.
Well, Xian Pu thought as she unexpectedly found herself sitting on the ground seeing stars and hearing bells ring. Times change. That hurt like the blue blazes. She looked up at Mu Suu with bleary eyes, only to be enraged by the concerned look on his face. She did not immediately try to attack. There were still entirely too many stars swimming around within her field of vision and she could only barely hear Mu Suu's entreaties for all the bells ringing. Actually, they sounded a good deal more like angry buzzers. She shook her head.
"Are you all right, Xian Pu?" Mu Suu asked his concern obvious in the tone of his voice. This only made Xian Pu angrier. What was it with this water-headed male, anyway? she wondered. I am Joketsu! How dare he act that way about me? The damned fool! Wasn't he EVER going to learn?
"Xian Pu?" Mu Suu asked.
Xian Pu glanced at Mu Suu and smiled inwardly to herself. At least he had learned not to drop his guard at times like this. He had dropped back into the crane fighting stance; arms ready to either defend or attack. Xian Pu gathered her legs beneath herself and grinned while still looking down at the pavement. The crane fighting stance was very like the cat fighting stance in that they were not stable. This might not sound like such a good thing at first blush, but it allowed the warrior to move over the ground quickly without telegraphing his intentions, and kept most of his weight off of his lead foot. The weakness of both stances was that neither was too good if the warrior needed to jump straight upwards. He had most of his weight on the rear foot. At the moment, Mu Suu was standing right lead. Xian Pu raised her body slightly, as though she were going to stand, but then dropped back, down as though she were unable to.
"Xian Pu?" Mu Suu asked, solicitously, "Are you ... "
Xian Pu sank lower until the bulk of her weight was on both hands, then uncoiled her body into a wickedly fast heel sweep with her right foot. Mu Suu nearly avoided the attack, but his left leg simply lacked the power to get him completely clear. Xian Pu's right heel barely bumped the sole of his left foot, causing him to stretch out completely parallel to the ground in mid-air.
"Oof!" Mu Suu noised as the hard pavement forced the air from his lungs.
Xian Pu gained her feet so fast that an onlooker would have seen nothing but a purple blur.
"Why you always insult Xian Pu, Mu Suu?"
Mu Suu was too busy trying to regain his breath to answer.
"Xian Pu hate being treated like breakable outsider made of glass!" Xian Pu angrily added as she tried to give Mu Suu a medium grade heel stomp in the solar plexus. He surprised her. Not only did he block her move, he launched a heel sweep of his own--a hard one. Xian Pu hit the ground hard enough to see stars again. She quickly rolled onto her side and launched what would have been a front snap kick at Mu Suu's groin had they both been standing up. They were not standing up, but the kick was one of those whistling-nasty ones, guaranteed to incapacitate the average male for at least a couple of hours.
Mu Suu somehow saw this attack coming and blocked it handily with his left foot then trapped Xian Pu's left leg at the ankle by trapping her ankle between his legs crossed at his ankles.
"What?" Xian Pu cried out, not quite believing what her favorite pest had just done. Much to her further shock and surprise, he was not yet through. She suddenly and inexplicably found herself pinned beneath Mu Suu's body, unable to use her legs because he had somehow managed to keep her left leg crossed over her right. A dagger, just a practice blade made of oak, suddenly appeared in Mu Suu's right hand and he made as though he were about to cut Xian Pu's throat with it. It would have left a stain on her skin had he succeeded. He had stained the edge of the blade with the juice of a bright red berry native to their homeland. The mark would not go away for two or three days and Xian Pu had not born such a stain on her person for the better part of five years. It had taken Ko Lon to give her the last such stain she had worn.
She trapped Mu Suu's knife hand with a crossed-wrist block. With his latest assault blocked, she had time to look Mu Suu in the face. What she saw made her gasp. He bore the look of implacable determination. Now he was using his weight and considerable strength to press the edge of the practice blade down towards Xian Pu's throat. Xian Pu pressed back with all the strength she had in both arms, stopping the blade's decent. She then tried to free her legs. It proved a waste of effort. She did not have the leverage she needed to overcome Mu Suu's iron-like hold. She had to do something quickly! She could not hold off the blade forever. As strong as she was, Mu Suu had gravity on his side. He needed only to maintain a steady, downward pressure on the wooden knife in order to win their little match. Xian Pu gambled with her control over the knife and popped Mu Suu in the chin with her elbow.
"Shit!" Xian Pu grunted out. She had meant to hit him between the chin and larynx, not hard enough to do him any permanent harm, of course, but enough to make him choke and loose strength. She watched in horror as an evil gleam came into Mu Suu's eye. While still holding the knife in his right hand and bearing down on her with all his weight, Mu Suu used his left hand to strike Xian Pu's rib cage just below her right armpit.
"Aaaiii!" Xian Pu cried out involuntarily, then, out of sheer desperation, she bit Mu Suu's right wrist. He answered her move by slamming another hammer fist into that same, indefensible spot beneath her armpit. It hurt like hell and was hard enough this time to cause Xian Pu to lose control of her breathing. The blade began a slow decent towards Xian Pu's throat. She mustered all the strength she had remaining, and forced it back a millimeter or so. Mu Suu banged Xian Pu's ribs again, knocking the wind out of her. The strength in Xian Pu's arms dissipated despite the sudden flood of adrenaline pouring into her system. Without oxygen, her muscles simply could not resist the combination of Mu Suu's weight and strength. The world became very dim for a few seconds.
Mu Suu dropped the wooden knife and the clattering ring of wood striking the hard pavement was loud in Xian Pu's ear. Mu Suu sighed, then rolled away from her. Xian Pu felt the left-hand side of her neck. No doubt about it, The stain was complete, starting at her windpipe, then passing around the side of her neck to a point just below her jaw-line. Had the knife been real, Xian Pu would be unconscious and dying at this very moment as her life's blood spewed out onto the street. Xian Pu fought off the urge to retch and waited for her breathing to return to normal, instead of coming in painful fits and starts. Once recovered, she sat up and found Mu Suu giving her a cold stare.
"That was a serious mistake, Xian Pu."
"Xian Pu know that."
"Do you realize what you did wrong?"
"Xian Pu go too easy on Duck-boy."
Mu Suu snorted in derision at this.
"No, you didn't! You underestimated me is what you did!"
Xian Pu said nothing, but looked away from her would-be suitor. She did not want to admit it to him, but she had in fact done that very thing.
"You assumed that because it was I who was your opponent, you could just do the same old things you always do and win."
Xian Pu said nothing in reply. She looked up at the sky, as though suddenly interested in the clouds.
"Soon you will be facing many old friends and rivals again, Xian Pu," Mu Suu said in a hard voice. "Making the same sort of mistake with one of them could be very costly."
So! Xian Pu thought. At last he finally does it! He treats me like a warrior. He behaves like a real man instead of some bimbo outsider ruled by his penis instead of his mind. Good! Now I can stand to be nice to him--a little bit nice to him. This may not last. He may get up in the morning and be all soft in the head again.
"Thank you, Mu Suu," Xian Pu said as she turned her head and smiled at her fellow Amazon. "Xian Pu not like to be treated like outsider girl made of glass. You finally act like real man."
Mu Suu said nothing in answer. He stared at the ground instead. After a long moment of silence, he raised his head and looked Xian Pu in the eye.
"There is too much at stake now for me to treat you any other way, Xian Pu. We both know you are about to take the grand tour of hell. I will do all I can to help you train, even if it means doing things I don't want to do."
Xian Pu hopped up to her feet, then offered Mu Suu both her hands. He accepted her proffered assistance and let her half-pull him up to his feet.
"We go to bath now, yes?" Xian Pu asked.
Mu Suu silently nodded his head in answer. He could not tear his eyes away from Xian Pu's face, even though he looked as though he did not believe what he was seeing. Xian Pu fought off the urge to giggle. She really was proud of him at this moment and truly and heartily approved of what he had just done.
"After bath, Xian Pu fix you super-extra special dinner. Okay?"
"As you wish, Xian Pu."
"Xian Pu fix black pepper shrimp with snowpeas in lobster sauce. Is Mu Suu's favorite, yes?"
Mu Suu smiled back at Xian Pu and nodded his head before speaking.
"Go get your bath things, Xian Pu. I'll go bring the cart around back."
"Xian Pu no-need ride in cart."
"I need Xian Pu to ride in cart," Mu Suu said emphatically, stabbing himself in the chest with a middle finger. He turned to walk away, then over his shoulder he said, "Please go get your things, Xian Pu!'
Xian Pu giggled, even though doing so made her ribs hurt. She looked down at herself and gasped in horror. What little was left of her clothing was a dirt-stained wreck. She hurried inside the Nekohanten and rushed upstairs. She was in such a rush that she took no notice of Ko Lon's knowing cackle.
Ko Lon cackled again, unnoticed, then found a comfortable place to sit and fill her pipe.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same!" Ko Lon said to no one in particular, then cackled again.
Kodachi Kuno settled into the steaming waters of Nerima's newly refurbished sentou or public bath, with a heartfelt sigh as she gently placed a cold, wet towel on top of her head. The sentou was a Japanese establishment with a long history, but few people visited one on a daily basis anymore. Most apartments, Kodachi's current domicile being one of the sad exceptions, had western style shower stalls nowadays. The sentou of modern Japan had become something more like a kind of amusement center than a place one visited daily to get cleaned up. Which meant, of course, that the few remaining sentou were busiest on the weekends and thankfully, still offered full bathhouse services during the week for nominal fees. Nominal fees had become important to Kodachi Kuno in the last three days.
The past three days had been the longest in her life. It had been a long series of horrifying shocks. The first shock had come when Nabiki went with her to find an apartment. Kodachi had put her foot down and refused to take the first choice Nabiki had recommended. It had been a tiny, single room affair with shower and toilet down the hall -- shared with the other tenants. They then went to look at a place Kodachi saw advertised. Kodachi had been dismayed. The required deposit alone exceeded the amount of money Nabiki had allowed her as working capital. She finally settled for a place somewhat larger than her baby grand piano. It at least had its own toilet. Then came the onerous task of equipping the kitchen and purchasing cleaning materials. For the very first time in her life, Kodachi was shocked at the cost of living. Fortunately for Kodachi, she had been spared the necessity of setting up and paying for telephone service. Nabiki had given her a cellular telephone, but only because communication was necessary to business.
Her next great shock had been clothing. It was more than shocking. It was humiliating. More than that, it was very annoying. It was annoying because she found herself buying back several pieces of her own, previously discarded clothing, along with several pairs of her old shoes at a re-sale shop. She had given those items to different members of the household staff. Kodachi had gritted her teeth and bore the insult with outward equanimity. Then came a truly horrifying shock. She had consumed nearly half of her hundred-thousand yen reserve at the end of the day and still had not purchased groceries. She began to understand why so many girls below her economic class preyed upon boys for money.
The shock of shocks, however, had been Jean-Luc Thibbideaux, not because he had been so easy to bowl over. No man could long resist the charm and elan of Kodachi Kuno. No, that had not been the least bit surprising. The shock had been how he managed to charm her. He was positively ancient for starters, being thirty years old, and was balding prematurely and had a positively gargantuan nose, yet he had somehow won Kodachi over to his side as much as she had won him over to Nabiki's ideas.
Despite all that had happened, Kodachi was bound and determined to prove that she could take anything life dished out as well as or better than a lower class peasant like Nabiki Tendo. Whether she was trying to prove it to Nabiki or to herself she was no longer certain, but prove it she would. She had been fortunate enough to be born a Kuno this time around. Obviously, this meant that she was superior to those reborn into lesser families.
She was also fortunate in that she was a fairly accomplished martial artist. This spared her the expense of having to ride a bus to school. Even so, it was something of an annoying trade-off, in that Kodachi found it necessary to leave home earlier than was her habit. She habitually rose early and liked to read, play the piano for a little while and dawdle over breakfast before going to school. Well, she wouldn't be playing the piano for a while, but she missed her private time in the morning no less for all of that.
By Wednesday afternoon however, Kodachi's confidence in herself was slowly coming back up to full strength. She was certain that she could become acclimated to her new condition, even if it did mean washing her own clothes and picking up after herself in the evenings after a long, dreary day of running errands for that hard-hearted bitch of a "Sensei." Even the six block walk to the sentou was bothering her less -- but only slightly less.
"Oh, Kami-sama!" Kodachi exclaimed as she exhaled a huge breath. "This feels so good I can hardly bear it."
"Hard day at school, Dearie?" an older woman sharing the swimming pool asked sweetly.
Kodachi froze up for a few seconds. She still had not quite gotten used to bathing at the sentou, much less chatting with lower-class strangers. She would have to be friendly with them, she decided. After all, spying on the Tokugawa Shogunate for the Emperor required it. She was not actually spying for anyone, of course, and Japan had not had a Shogun for more than two centuries, but pretending that she was a spy for Japan's Emperor struggling to wrest control from an obdurate Shogunate was the only way she could cope with the demands of her newly accepted Sensei--that bitch! Functional delusion was a Kuno family strong point, even if it did annoy everyone else who came into contact with them.
"I wish it were merely school alone," Kodachi answered in as unaffected a manner as she could. "It is the cooking and cleaning on top of it that fatigues me."
"Where is your mother, dear?" the old woman asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
"Oh, she has been gone for a long time," Kodachi said, doing an excellent job of feigning heartfelt sadness. "There has been only me, my father and my brother for many years now. I finally moved out on my own a few days ago." Kodachi paused to melodramatically place the back of her left hand on her brow. "Two Japanese men under one roof is entirely too many."
The older woman laughed over this.
"I know what you mean, dear," the older woman said. "I had a husband and four sons living at home up until a decade or so ago."
"Are you alone now?" Kodachi asked.
The older woman nodded.
"My husband was often a lot of trouble, but I would still like to have him around for an hour or so at a time, say, once every other month or so."
Kodachi stared at the old woman in puzzlement. The older woman smiled at her in return.
"One day you will understand, Dearie, but in the meantime, try to have a little fun."
"That sounds like good advice, Obaa-san," Kodachi said with a smile.
"Is your father helping you out at all, dear?"
"Father?" Kodachi asked, as she erupted into her chilling laugh. "My goodness, no!"
"Well how are you able to have a place to live or anything to eat, dear?"
"Oh," Kodachi said in as innocent a voice as she could muster, "money shouldn't be a problem for me if I'm careful. I have a little saved here and there."
"That's good," the old woman said. "I'm sure a lovely young girl such as yourself won't have any problems finding a job after you graduate from high school."
Kodachi fought off the urge to gag by reminding herself of her "duty" to the Emperor. A Kuno working as someone else's employee? Bleah!
"Oh, I do so hope you are right, Obaa-san! I am planning to go to college as well."
"What about marriage and children, dear?"
"Children?" Kodachi asked, unable to keep a quaver out of her voice.
"Well certainly!" the old woman said, then cackled. "You wouldn't want to end up lonely AND broke in your old age, now would you?"
"Lonely?" Kodachi asked, sounding as though she might break down and cry. She sounded that way because quite suddenly and for some inexplicable reason, she really did want to cry. "No. I don't like that at all."
"There, you see? My husband has been dead for nearly five years now, but my sons come by to see me several times a week. I don't want for anything, my dear. Children are a woman's best friend. The jewelers may keep their diamonds, thank you very much."
Kodachi felt the sharp stab of pain at the corner of her eyes that signaled the onset of tears, but managed to fight it off. She dare not cry and shame the Son of Heaven, she told herself.
"I shall have to think about that," Kodachi said in a tiny voice. "I never considered having children before."
The old woman gave Kodachi a warm and kindly smile.
"All things in their own time, my dear," she said, patting Kodachi on the arm. Kodachi stifled her desire to flinch away. Touching a stranger is just not done in Japan and is a privilege granted only to the very young and the elderly. "As pretty as you are, you won't have any trouble at all finding a husband."
"Well, I ... I do have someone, but ... "
"Take your time and choose carefully, dear. Broad shoulders and a pretty face do not always a good husband make."
Kodachi, uncharacteristically, could think of nothing to say.
"Oh, my goodness!" the old lady said as she struggled to stand up. "It's getting late. I had best be going."
"Good night, Obaa-san."
"Good night to you, dear. It was a pleasure talking with you."
"The pleasure," Kodachi paused to clear a catch in her throat, "was all mine, Obaa-san."
The old woman gave Kodachi a smile and tiny wave before teetering off to find the ladies dressing area. Kodachi stared after her, eyes glazed over and unseeing as her mind was overwhelmed by a sickeningly vertiginous storm of thought and emotion.
Lonely? I've never been lonely. No, that's not true. I've never been alone before, but I've always been lonely. How did that happen? I haven't had any friends since grade school, not really. I have servants and family for company, but the servants are merely hired help. Father thinks he is the Great Kahuna of Hawaii and poor Tatewaki believes he is everything Toshiro Mifune pretended to be and then some. The truly sad part of that is, Mifune-sama was probably a much better swordsman. He was certainly better looking. Kodachi felt the urges to both giggle and cry simultaneously.
Kodachi sank a little deeper into the warm embrace of the furo as her mind continued to spin. She had often dreamt of having Ranma Saotome share her bed, but had never given the potential outcome of such a happy event any serious consideration. Children? Whatever on earth for? So that she would not be lonely some sixty-years from now? Money was unlikely to ever be a problem for her. Could she so easily end up old and alone in some vast old house with naught but hirelings for company?
"Mayhap I've taken to following the wrong Sensei and am studying the wrong art," Kodachi said aloud to herself.
Jean-Luc Thibbideaux eased his tender bottom, all gaijin bottoms are tender when exposed to a Japanese furo, into the near-scalding water of Nerima's oft-remodeled sentou with an audible grunt of pain. Slowly and painfully, he gently lowered the rest of his body into the water while holding his breath. He otherwise might have cried out aloud. Despite the initial discomfort of entering a hot furo, Jean-Luc had long ago concluded that the Japanese bath made up for all the rest of the country's shortcomings. Bathing in this manner was definitely an acquired taste, but one well worth the effort of doing so. He never relaxed better nor thought more clearly than when allowing these hot, mineral-laced waters soak away his worries.
This evening, his thoughts were concerned with Nabiki Tendo and Kodachi Kuno. He had recognized Nabiki for what she was without being told, of course, but numerous warnings and a surprising number of encouragements had reached his ears since the Monday morning of their first meeting. He shook his head in amazement upon remembering one of things he had been told. It was hard to imagine that a mere stripling of a girl, only sixteen years old, would know enough about her locality to recognize shortage of something as obscure and mundane as wooden pallets. It was even more amazing that such a youngster would then act upon such knowledge. The fact that she had not altogether succeeded was not the surprise. The surprise was that she had gotten as far as she had.
Thibbideaux had allowed himself to be persuaded to go along with Nabiki because there seemed to be little risk to himself or his business. After all, he had no interest whatsoever in the mass production of anything, let alone bicycles. Yet, if what Nabiki had in mind worked out, his little place in the south of France was assured. Kodachi's attempts had certainly played a major role in his decision, but not the one most people would have suspected. He recognized Kodachi for what she was within seconds of laying eyes upon her, and knew almost immediately that she suffered as badly as he did from the same affliction. On reflection, he realized that sharing the drink called loneliness with one so young was a great shame, but it was better than drinking alone.
Ukyou Kuonji straightened up from cleaning the counter top, then stretched to get the kinks out of her back. It had been a long and profitable day. Now it was time to get a bath and some rest. Or perhaps it was time to get a bath, a little late evening delight, then get some rest. This reconsideration gave her some pause. Am I being fair to Konatsu and myself? Certainly Daddy would be upset if he knew. NO, WAIT. That assessment was not quite accurate enough. Her old man was going to be furious WHEN he found out. To hell with that! I have my own life to live and its time I took it off hold and lived it. Konatsu might not be the manliest thing when it came to appearances, but he was more than manly enough where it counted the most, and besides, he adores me. How could I have been so blind for so long? Daddy will just have to get over his little snit, or settle things with Genma Saotome without my help. I am going to start living again. It's time for the madness to end, honor be damned!
"Your bath things are ready, Ukyou-sama!" Konatsu called down the stairs to Ukyou.
"Thank you, 'Natsu-chan!" Ukyou said. She smiled to herself when she thought about the effect her words would have on her resident Kunoichi. She made her way upstairs and into her bedroom. True to his word, Konatsu had her shampoo, cream rinse, razor, _et cetera_ in her large plastic bowl. A fresh yukata was laid out on the bed for her, as well as a heavy, terry-cloth robe.
"Hmmm, it must be chilly out," Ukyou said to no one in particular as her face broke out into sunny smile. "He doesn't ordinarily put that out for me."
Ukyou took little time removing her work clothes, but paused to look at her nude form in the full length mirror on the closet door. Her skin was healthy and always had been. Her hair was long, thick and luxuriant. The product of not merely letting it grow, but also matter of painstaking care. She was firmly muscled compared to ninety-percent of the girls she knew and in far better tone than any of the models she saw on magazine covers. Her breasts, while not grossly inflated, were firm and proud, their proportions a perfect match for the rest of her body. She turned around a couple of times to make sure of all her appearance. Her bottom was, if anything, firmer than her breasts and nicely heart-shaped. She wiggled it experimentally, then giggled.
"Eat'cher heart out, Ran-chan," she said aloud. "You're gonna miss this for the rest of your life."
Satisfied that her body was in working order and her ego sufficiently braced, Ukyou threw on the yukata and heavy robe. Picking up the rest of toiletry items, she opened the door and walked out into the tiny hallway of her second-story flat. What she found there took her aback. It was Konatsu, but the make-up and flowery print yukata he normally wore on their way to the sentou were absent. In their absence were a lean, masculine face and a man's yukata of plain gray. He had a heavy towel, deep maroon in color, slung over one shoulder and a bucket containing his shaving gear and other things. His yukata was loose fitting, but still managed to somehow show off the best parts of Konatsu's wiry frame. No doubt about it, Konatsu was a genius at picking clothes.
"Are you ready, Ukyou-sama?" he asked.
Ukyou shuddered. The slight twinge of desire she had felt earlier downstairs ignited into something more like a rapidly growing forest fire.
"You bet, Sugar," Ukyou said with a naughty grin. "Let's go get cleaned up."
The night-shift manager of Nerima's oft-rebuilt sentou watched as one her regulars debarked her pull-cart. The girl was always pretty, but tonight she seemed to have an extra bit of glow about her. Her bearing was regal, as though she were a famous actress at the top of her career. The young man that had just recently taken to bringing the girl in by pulling her along in a cart looked as proud as the owner of a great yacht, decorated with pretty girls. The girl walked through the entrance as though she owned the sentou along with the rest of Nerima. She gave the manager a brief smile and nod as she passed the desk. Her companion stopped and paid for both of them.
The manager took the money and thought no more about it, until ten minutes or so later when Ukyou Kuonji, best damned okonomiyaki chef the manager had ever met, and her sidekick, the kunoichi Konatsu Kenzan walked in. At that point, the night-shift manager's nerves began to fray a little. These two particular customers had for a long time been careful not to visit the sentou at the same time. Some of her fears were slightly assuaged by Ukyou's appearance. Ukyou was ordinarily cheerful and upbeat, almost as though it were a deliberately cultivated habit, but tonight she seemed to be beyond that. It seemed as though all was right with world in general and with Ukyou in particular.
The night manager accepted Ukyou's payment for both herself and Konatsu, then watched with more than a little trepidation as the willowy martial artist and chef made her way back to the dressing area. Shortly after Ukyou was out of sight, the night manager reflexively picked up the telephone and started to dial 119, then stopped herself. Nothing had happened yet, and her luck might hold out. The evening could continue quite peacefully, or World Wars III and IV could break out simultaneously. There was just no way to tell for certain. This was Nerima, after all.
The night-shift manager settled back in her chair, took a deep breath, then admonished herself to remain calm. It was then that she remembered that Kodachi Kuno had come in earlier that evening and had not yet left. Her hair stood right straight up as she began crying. She wished with all her heart that she could just go ahead and pick up the phone and scream for help, just so she could have an end to it all. Horror and suspense were not on her list of favorite entertainment.
Jean-Luc Thibbideaux's reverie was broken by the sound of someone speaking English.
"Mind if I join you?"
Jean-Luc focused his attention upon the interloper as quickly as he could. He had been deep in thought when the man arrived. He found himself confronted by a veritable mountain of a man, a flabby mountain to be sure, but a man who had doubtless been quite a powerhouse in his youth.
"No, not at all. Please sit down."
"Oh, good!" the man said in a relieved voice as eased his way down into the furo. "You speak English."
Jean-Luc fought off the urge to give out an exasperated sigh. The guy was one of those dratted Americans. Oh, well, it was better than drinking alone.
"Yes," Jean-Luc said with a weak smile. "It has become a necessary skill, thanks to your country."
"Well don't worry, I shan't trouble you with my poor French. My accent is atrocious."
Jean-Luc gave the man a grateful smile for this. Perhaps he has a little taste. We'll see.
"What brings you to Japan?" Jean-Luc asked.
"The people and the scenery."
"Then you are here on holiday?"
"No, I am here working. I paint landscapes."
"Aha! The studio I've seen just north of Sales Street must be yours then."
The man nodded his head.
"I had concluded that it was abandoned," Jean-Luc said. "I never see anyone there."
"I have been traveling around Japan as much as I can," the man said. "And a bit of Korea. Paperwork for a yet to be established artist is hard to come by. All I have is a tourist visa. You have to leave the country once every ninety days when that's all you have."
Jean-Luc nodded his head and made sympathetic noises, but he was a bit suspicious. An artist the age of this American should have been well established in his profession by now if he was any good. He decided to sound the fellow out.
"So where did you study?"
"Well, its funny, you know? I set out to be an artist a bit late in life. Didn't take it up until I won one of the state lotteries a few years ago."
"Rather than go to college, I apprenticed myself to an artist in upstate New York. Lots of beautiful scenery there, you know."
Thibbideaux nodded his head. He had never been to the United States, and may all the gods forbid such an event, but he had heard that the northern portions of New York State were quite beautiful.
"But it isn't nearly as beautiful as the southern coast of France," the American added.
"You've been there?" Jean-Luc asked, feeling a little stab of excitement.
The American nodded his head enthusiastically.
Jean-Luc and the American became so engrossed in their conversation that they failed to notice the arrival of Mu Suu, followed by the arrival of Konatsu a short time later. Konatsu and Mu Suu however, took note of one another with eyes widened in alarm. Not that they had ever fought one another, or ever would. Theirs was not a relationship likely to cause excitement.
Ukyou did not bother to look around the bathing room before sitting down in front of a washing station. She was entirely too preoccupied with what she was going to do to Konatsu once they returned home. It was the ring of a brass ornament striking the hard tiles of the bathing room floor that caused Ukyou to take note of what, or more accurately, who, was around her. She had quite without realizing it sat down next to Xian Pu who as, at the moment, preoccupied with washing her hair. Ukyou had never actually given Xian Pu a good looking over before and certainly not while the Amazon was completely nude. The young Amazon was a sight guaranteed to give anyone pause, be they male or female.
Xian Pu's unique combination of rippling muscles and beautifully sculpted curves was something that no woman in her right mind would willingly stand beside, especially if there were any men around to do a comparison check. Ukyou blinked a couple of times, realizing that this young heathen had enough recipes tucked between her ears to easily rival the best chefs in the world. The girl was powerful enough to use bon bori, normally only selected by big, burly men, as her favored weapons, but graceful enough to shame a prima ballerina. Yet all of it counted for naught insofar as Ran-chan had been concerned. Xian Pu had lost as thoroughly as Ukyou had.
Ukyou picked up the hair ornament Xian Pu had dropped. It gave off a faint ring as she did so.
"What Spatula Girl doing?" Xian Pu asked in demanding tones.
"You dropped this," Ukyou said, being careful to keep her voice calm and free of overt animosity. "I was picking it up for you."
Xian Pu remained frozen in place for a moment. Ukyou then realized the Amazon had reason for both caution and suspicion. Her luxuriant hair was laden with suds. There was no way Xian Pu could easily see who or what was around her.
"Thank you," Xian Pu said.
Ukyou placed the ornament on the faux-marble shelf in front of Xian Pu. It gave off another faint ring as she did so. The ornament was unlike anything Ukyou had ever seen available in a department store. It had been lovingly hand wrought of fine brass and rather than cheap elastic, its cords were made of heavy, braided silk.
"It's very pretty," Ukyou said.
Xian Pu nodded her head in agreement.
"Amazon mens make many pretty things for Amazon womens. Is tradition."
"My name isn't 'Spatula Girl' by the way," Ukyou said, allowing herself to sound mildly irritated. "It's Ukyou. Ukyou Kuonji, remember?"
The Amazon stopped washing her hair and sat still for a moment before answering. "Xian Pu remember. Not mean to insult. Is old habit."
Ukyou turned back to face the mirror of her own wash-station and used the sprinkler hose to begin wetting her own hair. She wanted very badly to ask when Xian Pu and her fellow Joketsuzoku would return to China, but decided that might lead to events which would disrupt the public peace.
"Xian Pu no go home to China soon," Xian Pu said.
Well! Ukyou thought to herself. You aren't quite the bimbo you let everyone think, are you now?
"Oh?" Ukyou asked, being careful to sound mildly curious. "Not even for a visit?"
Xian Pu began rinsing her hair as she answered.
"Great-grandmother say we stay Japan," Xian Pu said unhappily. "Maybe we move south -- to other island."
"You know, Xian Pu," Ukyou said in a tone of sly amusement, "you can drop the bimbo act with me if you want. I know you aren't that dim."
Xian Pu tossed her head, causing her hair to fling warm water around the room, then began to work cream rinse into her purplish-black tresses.
"Xian Pu Japanese speaking is no act. Have choice when little. Learn to speak many languages so-so, or learn few languages well. Xian Pu choose first."
This took Ukyou back considerably. She had always thought the Amazons were a bunch of backward hicks living in a remote, seldom visited mountain chain. "Oh, really? How many?"
"TEN?" Ukyou was unable to keep the shock out of her voice.
"Including English," Xian Pu said in English. "I speak it better than the others. Almost as well as I speak Mandarin and Cantonese."
Ukyou had to work at stopping her mind from flapping for a minute before she could sort things out. She had long known that no single language was spoken in China, even though its official language was Mandarin. She simply had not thought the matter through where Xian Pu was concerned.
"So what's your native language?"
"Is little-known form of Turkic. Is from same family of languages as Japanese and Korean." Xian Pu said with a shrug of her shoulders.
Ukyou bristled at the notion of Japanese being somehow related to Korean. She had read such claims in foreign news accounts, but never from one of her own school teachers. She stifled her revulsion and kept her tone conversational.
"Oh? I never heard of Japanese being related to any other language at all, much less Turkic."
"Is true," Xian Pu said. "All descend from ancient Altaic speaking ... language."
While the two of them continued to bath in silence for a few minutes, Ukyou's mind was racing in circles. She speaks TEN languages? Japanese is a form of, what? Altaic? Where the hell did the Altains live and how did we wind up speaking a form of their language? In the end, Ukyou decided that she was a good deal more curious about something else.
"So how come your mother never visits Japan, Xian Pu?"
"Mother die when Xian Pu very small," Xian Pu said, her eyes suddenly lit with a ferocity Ukyou had not seen the girl exhibit before. "She travel with Father on trading voyage. Policemans in far away village arrest her for being reactionary enemy of socialism. We never hear from her again. One day, letter come from Peking. Is bill for bullet used to execute Xian Pu mother."
Ice cold water flooded Ukyou's veins and she shivered involuntarily. She had heard about this kind of thing on the news, but never really gave it any serious thought. It had always seemed so remote and far away. Now she was face to face with a victim of such an atrocity.
"I'm very sorry, Xian Pu," Ukyou said. The sadness in her voice was genuine. There had never been any love lost between the two of them, but Ukyou would never have wished such a thing on anyone.
Xian Pu shook her head. "No need be sorry. Was not Spatula ... was not Ukyou fault. Was crazy mens in Peking."
"Is that why you're not going home any time soon?"
Xian Pu took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. "Xian Pu not know for sure. Great-grandmother say many changes in China since we come here."
"I hate to ask, but did you guys actually pay that goddamned bill?"
Xian Pu grinned. "We send money. We wait one week, then send head of village commissar to same address. Mens in Peking very unhappy, but never know was Joketsuzoku vengeance. Was far away village."
Ukyou could think of nothing appropriate to say, and did not want Xian Pu to think she was prying by asking for more details, so the two of them finished their bathing in silence. Nerima might thus have seen a completely violence free evening -- save whatever nonsense was on television. Alas, Nerima hates peace and quiet.
Kodachi Kuno gave out a little gasp before she could stop herself upon entering the bathing room. She had run across two of the Emperor's worst enemies. Both had long been assigned the task of seducing her darling husband away from his Emperor and his family. Family? Wouldn't that mean ... children? Never mind! I'll sort that out later. Both have long been assigned to my darling Ranma-sama, the Emperor's strong, right arm. The Chinese whore works the streets selling noodles and throwing her charms at him whenever the opportunity arises. The other poses as a gutter-merchant, selling some vile concoction of fried dough and half-cooked meat. Her strategies are, if anything, even more laughable than the foreign whore's. She claims to be my beloved's rightful fiancee! How ridiculous! Whatever on earth possessed this low-born creature to ever think she could successfully press such a claim?
Still, Kodachi admitted to herself, there is a very real danger here. Both these slitches have ample charms, should a man's taste run towards the plebeian. Doubtlessly, Ranma-sama might well enjoy a dalliance or two with either or both in a weak moment. The obvious answer is to keep them both in their place, lest they become too bold. That could be disastrous. The Chinese whore is loyal to the Dragon Throne and would love to wheedle what her sovereign needs to know from my Ranma-sama. Should she succeed, we will have Mongolian hordes tramping about the Land of the Gods with their muddy boots on. Kami forbid it! And that little guttersnipe partner of hers does not realize that I know she actually works for the Kawasaki Clan, never wavering in their loyalty to the Tokugawa. One day the Emperor will lure her master out of his mountain stronghold and forever put an end to his vile machinations, but today, we'll settle for putting this upstart pawn in her place. She started with a laugh, of course. Her laughter was one of her favorite weapons.
"Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! What have we here? The mice plotting against the cat? It won't work, you know!"
"Oh, go stuff a rag in it, you Gothic goombah!" Ukyou said in a tired voice.
"Need plenty big furoshike," Xian Pu said, as though eyeing a large pile of dishes in need of washing. "They no make tampon that size."
"You would know all about THAT, wouldn't you, dear?" Kodachi replied, warily watching both Ukyou and Xian Pu as they rose to their feet.
"Let me have her Xian Pu," Ukyou said, squaring off towards Kodachi. "I'm in the mood!"
None of the three girls were aware that their voices were echoing throughout the building and quite naturally had not noticed the deathly silence on the men's side of the sentou.
"Is no problem," Xian Pu said with a smirk. "Crazy Flower girl too, too easy be good sparring for Xian Pu."
Technically speaking, none of the three agitatrices present was armed, but Kodachi was a specialist with the ribbon and in a pinch, a large towel made an excellent substitute for same. She gave Xian Pu a honeyed smile, having noticed the bruises on the Chinese girls rib cage, something Ukyou had yet to see.
"Think so?" Kodachi asked sweetly as she seized the corner of the large towel she had previously wrapped about her person. It was not dripping wet, but nicely weighted with moisture. "Let's see if you won't change your tiny little mind!"
Kodachi whirled the towel above her head with her hard-won grace and then, with a practiced twist of the wrist, flung a lightning-like lash at Xian Pu's battered ribs. A minor problem immediately manifested itself. Xian Pu had, since about age fourteen, been just a hair faster than your average bolt of lightning. Xian Pu took a tiny step forward and to her left, then waited as the long loop of damp terry cloth whistled towards her previous location. Just as the towel straightened completely out, Xian Pu grabbed its corner, even though it was fluttering at a velocity exceeding the speed of sound. The towel had struck empty air, rather than proud flesh, just as Xian Pu planned.
Kodachi was surprised by the muffled snap the towel made, then was shocked speechless when she found herself skidding across the ceiling of the sentou. Xian Pu and Ukyou watched dry-eyed as the daughter of Kuno-ke disappeared over the partition between the ladies and men's sides of the sentou. There was a loud splash, followed by more than a few masculine yelps of surprise.
"Nothing but furo!" Xian Pu said, looking rather pleased with herself. She turned and walked towards the ladies furo.
"Hey!" Ukyou exclaimed as she followed Xian Pu. "I thought you were gonna let me have her!"
Xian Pu turned suddenly and faced Ukyou with a merry twinkle in her eye. The sort of merry twinkle that told Ukyou one of those truly embarrassing practical jokes was in the offing.
"You want?" Xian Pu asked.
"Well ... I did, but it's a little too late ... YAAAH! Xian Pu, what are you doing?"
Xian Pu had used her own towel in a whip like fashion to enwrap the startled Ukyou, pinning her arms to her sides.
"You can have," Xian Pu said as she launched a powerful side-kick at the oft-battered partition. The partition ruptured with a loud bang. Fragments of the shattered panel sailed across the men's half of the sentou and struck the far wall with subsidiary clatter. "Xian Pu like to watch!"
"Now wait a ... Whoa!" Ukyou shouted in vain as she suddenly found herself sailing through the air, bereft of towels. She landed with a spectacular splash in the middle of the men's furo.
"Xian Pu, what are you doing?" a very startled and embarrassed Mu Suu cried out.
"Taking bath!" Xian Pu answered, as she gracefully wrapped herself up in her towel. "Is much fun, yes?"
There were several nods of heartfelt assent on the men's side of the sentou.
"Perhaps we should go now, Xian Pu," Mu Suu suggested.
"Okay!" Xian Pu said sweetly, as she turned and began walking back towards the ladies' dressing area. "Xian Pu meet you in front."
Ukyou rose sputtering from the waters of the men's furo just as Xian Pu disappeared from sight.
"I owe you a big one for this, you Chinese hussy!" Ukyou shouted. The bar-joists holding the roof and ceiling above them all vibrated in sympathy.
"Okay! Xian Pu watch for gift from Spatula Girl!" Xian Pu shouted back loud enough to be heard from behind the partition wall.
Jean-Luc watched these proceedings with a merry grin as he cradled the semi-conscious Kodachi in his arms. He could not allow the poor girl to drown, after all. His newly met American acquaintance began struggling to wrap a too-small towel about his waist without standing up.
"Are you all right, Ukyou-sama?" a slender, Japanese boy asked the second beauty to share water with the delighted Thibbideaux.
"I'm fine, Konatsu," Ukyou answered, then quailed as the full import of her circumstances finally seeped through her outrage.
The slender lad leaned closer to the naked beauty, genuine trepidation living in his face, "Are you still in the mood?" he asked.
The lovely nude turned crimson from head to foot.
"Come on, Konatsu," she said as she seized the slender young man by the arm. "Let's get out of here!" She tramped across the men's furo, towards the ladies' side, dragging the young man along with her.
"Oh, Ranma-sama," Kodachi half-murmured, half-moaned.
"But! But! But!" Konatsu exclaimed as he floundered along behind the departing lovely.
"I'm sorry!" the American shouted as he rose from the heated waters of the furo. Thibbideaux was put in mind of a volcanic island, newly arisen from the sea upon witnessing this. The water poured off the big man's body in long streamers, while huge waves surged across the furo. "I have no more time to spend with you today!" The American shouted in an irritated voice as he melodramatically pointed with one raised arm towards the ceiling of the sentou. "The sun! It compels me to paint!" With that, he splashed his way across the furo towards the men's dressing area. To Thibbideaux's utter amazement, a train sounded its horn at that very same moment, roaring out of town as the big American disappeared into the dressing area. Jean-Luc watched closely for a few seconds, half-expecting a flock of disturbed crows to put in a noisy appearance. After all, Van Gogh would have felt right at home in Nerima.
"Hold me, Darling," Kodachi moaned.
Nabiki Tendo was listening to the radio while she finished up her homework. This was not normal for her, but there was one radio station that played a lot of old gaijin music, almost all of which was sung in English. She found listening to it helped her with that particular subject. At the moment, there was some guy named Biru Jouru singing. Nabiki liked the tune. It had a catchy beat and the guy was really good on the piano.
"GIVE US A SONG YOU ARE THE PI-ANO MAN! GIVE US A SONG TO-NIGHT!"
With a half-muttered curse, Nabiki turned down the radio, then answered her cellular telephone.
"Tendo! This had better be good!"
"Sorry to bother you so late in the evening, Tendo-san."
"Yes, I'm calling you from the local sentou."
"The sentou!" Nabiki practically shouted. She looked out her window. Soun and Genma were still banging away at something in their make-shift forge under the direction of Tetsugo-san. "What the hell?"
"Well, there was a little excitement over here this evening. Fortunately, the damage is fairly moderate this time."
"Who caused it?" Nabiki asked. "All of the usual suspects are either out of town or right here in front of me."
"Not quite all of them, Tendo-san," Uchigawa said. Nabiki could tell he was about to burst out laughing. "Two of the Saotome boy's putative fiancees got together with his rich suitor this evening. The night-shift manager told me that she would be collecting at least half the repair bill from you. I thought it advisable to give you a call."
Nabiki gave out an audible groan. There was no way she could avoid a hassle over this, owing to several peculiarities of the Japanese culture. Hardly anyone liked to take anything to court. In many ways, the Japanese resent government interference in their affairs. This did not mean that things such as this did not end up in court, but the government did not really want things like this ending up in court. Having such things in court violated Japanese sensibilities and values, so they made sure that the court dockets stayed quite full and made every step of the process as cumbersome and inconvenient as possible.
This meant that such problems were usually handled by neighborhood arbitrators. These arbitrators were never officially appointed by the government, or anyone else. The process of choosing arbitrators was completely ad hoc and surprisingly effective. People like Kasumi, it seemed, were often the ones people turned to when such trouble arose. Kasumi could not arbitrate this one for obvious reasons, and Nabiki knew full well how any of the other available such folks would see this affair.
The three girls were affianced to Ranma Saotome, who was in fact affianced to Akane Tendo and the Tendo family was, surprisingly enough, considered one of the substantial pillars of the community. It naturally followed that this trite little mess would the responsibility of Tendo-ke. Especially seeing as how Soun Tendo had not, insofar as anyone could tell, done anything overt to clean up the fiancee mess. If he did not mind his son-in-law keeping a harem, then the trouble said harem caused had to covered by Tendo-ke's nickel. Collecting from the members of the harem would be a matter internal to Tendo-ke. Far be it from a good arbitrator to involve himself in a family matter. That sort of thing belonged in the courts. Think of it as a _Catch 22_ and deja vu all over again, all rolled into one.
"How bad is it?" Nabiki asked.
"Oh, forty-thousand yen will probably cover it."
"Okay, I'll stop by there in the morning and see if I can't sort the mess out."
"Good night, Tendo-san."
"Good night," Nabiki said tiredly as she broke the connection. She reached over and turned the radio back up.
" ... THEY'RE SHARIN' A DRINK THEY CALL LONELINESS, BUT IT'S BETTER THAN DRINKIN' ALONE! LA-DEE-DAH-DEE-DAA-DAH-DEE-DA-AH-DEE-DA-AH! DAH! DAH! ..."
Nabiki shook her head to clear her mind, then returned to her studies.
End of Chapter 9
Copyright © Don Granberry