Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 15


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.

Ranma Saotome woke in the wee hours of the morning, or at least, he thought he had wakened. After looking around at his surroundings, he realized that he was still asleep, but in that odd dream-space his girly half loved so much. He was sitting upon the ground with his back resting on the steep sides of Tengu Rock. Much to his relief, he was male. Much to his embarrassment, his female side was swimming in the slow burbling current of the nearby stream, being very female and very naked. The waters of the stream were wonderfully clear.

"Would you at least dream up a thong?" Ranma shouted angrily.

"Why?" Ranko asked. "You, me and Scales am the only one here."

"You and me am...." Ranma said in a puzzled tone before giving up and allowing his voice to trail off into silence.

"You really have got to get better at using words, Saotome," Ranko said with a giggle as she waded out onto the bank, "and we have got to do something about that streak of prudishness you're cursed with."

Ranma heard a scraping sound above and behind him. He leaned forward then twisted to his left so that he could see in the direction from which the noise came. It was his draconian self, blissfully soaking up the sun by lying across the broad flat, southward facing slope of Tengu Rock.

"Man! You are eatin' this up, ain't cha, Scales?" Ranma asked.

"Indeed I am, Saotome. This is most pleasant."

"Yeah, it is nice. I just wish we could find a way to bring Akane here," Ranma said.

"Ooh, I _like_ that idea!" Ranko said as she sensuously slid the palm of her left hand across the rippling muscles of her bare abdomen, and then downwards. Ranko's face suddenly became ecstatic. "We could have hours and hours of fun."

"Will you not talk like that?" Ranma shouted as he felt his face start to burn with the heat of a bright red blush. "And stop doin' _that_!"

His female self responded by sticking her tongue out at him and making a rude noise. Ranma was about to shout at her again when he felt the sudden onset of gooseflesh start prickling at the backs of his upper arms, then work its way up to his shoulders and onto the back of his neck. He wondered for a moment if his hair was now standing on end, like that of an irate feline. He glanced at Ranko to see if she were experiencing the same sensation. His female self was somehow fully clothed, wearing one of his blue shirts made of heavy silk, and a pair of dark blue dungarees tied at the ankles. I look pretty good in that outfit, Ranma thought to himself.

"That's why I wear it, silly," Ranko said aloud. "I look pretty good in that tank top I'm wearing, too."

"Huh?" Ranma noised then realized that he was wearing the same kind of dungarees as Ranko was wearing and a dark blue tank top made of soft cotton. "Oh."

"He approaches," Scales rumbled.

"He?" Ranma and Ranko chorused.

"Yes, he," Scales said. "He is nearby."

"Don't tell me there is another me!" Ranma exclaimed sounding exasperated.

"There is, Saotome," Ranko said, "but you won't ever let him come around."


"It is not our other self who approaches," Scales interjected. "This is our predecessor."

Ranma and Ranko could only stare in amazement as an impossibly tall old man approached them by strolling across the surface of the stream. Though he seemed to not be the least bit hurried, his enormous stride ate up the distance between himself and Ranma's selves. All three versions of The Saotome Childe blinked in wonder at this. The Caucasian's face bore a welter-work of complex tattoos. He was clean- shaven, but his white hair was long and thick. He wore it tied back into a simple queue. His clothing seemed to be made entirely of felt, dyed in bright reds and greens.

"Good evening," the old man intoned in an incredibly deep voice. "Nice place you've dreamed up here."

Ranma realized suddenly that the old man was not speaking Japanese. The only reason Ranma understood the old man was because kanji were appearing in his mind's eye, translating the ancient man's speech into written Japanese. It was eerily similar to the subtitles stretched across the bottom of the screen in a foreign film.

"Ah..." Ranma noised.

"Er..." Ranko added as she sat down beside Ranma.

"Greetings, Master," Scales rumbled.

"Master?" Ranko and Ranma chorused.

"Humility does not suit you very well, Saotome-dono," the old man said in answer, "but I suppose I should not be surprised that you would have the one thing most of us dragons lack."

"Me, humble?" Ranma and Ranko chorused again.

"Oh, don't worry!" the old man said. "It's only the faintest modicum of humility. Enough perhaps to let you do a better job than I."

"A better job of doing what, exactly?" Ranma asked.

"Why, that of being The Cold Dragon, of course," the old man said with a huge smile. "You don't know how happy I am that you finally came along. I was afraid that you would never become capable when you first began growing up. I have a place like this of my own, you know. I was beginning to think I'd never be able to fully enjoy it until recently."

Ranma felt his jaw sag. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Ranko was reacting in much the same manner.

"Huh?" the two of them chorused.

"Perhaps we should visit you there, someday," Scales rumbled.

"Once you have finally learned to fly, do that," the old man said with a smile as he sat down. "You won't mind if I sit, will you?"

"No!" Ranma answered, sounding vaguely annoyed, then asked, "Why would we?"

"Because you are a dragon and this is your lair, Saotome-dono," the old man said, with a wicked grin. "You really do have the common touch! That's good. Such a talent will serve you well in the future."

Ranma felt the sudden chill of a cold north wind blow through his soul. He could feel the weight of the world settling upon his shoulders with resolute finality as he stared at the old man's grinning visage.

"No!" Ranma exclaimed. "I don't want this! It's not what I want to be!"

"Oh, really?" the old man asked, as his nasty grin broadened. "What makes you think you have a choice? Would you flee from your own tail?"

"No! I mean...ya can't run from yer own ass, but..."

"Well then, there you have it!" the old man said with a slap at his thigh. "You are what you are. You have little choice about that, but then you may, if you wish, try to make things better."

"How?" Ranma asked. "How am I, an ignorant kid, gonna make things better?"

"Your ignorance is your fault!" the old man admonished. "It is a thing easily cured."

"Oh, yeah! So says the guy who's been hiding somewhere in the mountains of the Bayankala for the last century or two. Do you have any idea how dangerous the world is today, old man?"

"Certainly! Why do you think I have remained so circumspect?" the old man answered with a rueful grin, but then suddenly his eyes grew cold as he asked, "If the world has become so dangerous, why have you so steadfastly maintained your ignorance of it?"

"I...I...well...I..." Ranma stammered.

"Because that blockhead of a father of yours thinks it unmanly to study?" the old man asked.

"Naw, well, it's not that really. It's just that...Look here! Have ever actually looked at a salary-man? I ain't seen one yet that could fight his way out of a wet paper bag!"

"Humph!" The old man gave Ranma derisive snort, then said, "Courtiers often find themselves in bags that would swallow the likes of you without a trace to be found, little boy!"

Ranma's reply froze in his throat as he suddenly found himself thinking of Nabiki and how many times she had defeated him in a game he had never realized he was playing.

"Hah! That's my Ranma!" the old man cried out.

Ranma noticed that the old man was studying his face closely and blushed.

"Hit him on the head eight or nine times and he can come to grips with anything!" the old man said, sounding pleased.

"A man's gotta know his limitations!" Ranma said peevishly.

"A real man does something about his limitations, Saotome-dono!" the old man retorted. "Are you a real man?"

"Sometimes!" Ranma said sounding aggrieved. "Ever now and then I'm somethin' else! Even when I don't wanna..."


Ranma's felt his hair stand on end. Ranko gasped and dug her fingernails into the flesh of Ranma's upper right arm. Above and behind him, he could hear Scales sinking the microscopically thin edges of his powerful claws into the dense basalt of Tengu Rock. Scale's claws made faint popping noises as little puffs of dust shot into the air. Ranma felt tiny sharp-edged flakes of stone strike the back and top of his ears and upper arms.

"Meow?" the old man asked, sounding puzzled.

A house cat, or rather, a Ranma-sized house cat, a little over two-and-a-half shaku tall at the shoulder, came trotting out of the dense under-story that defined the clearing around Tengu Rock. It had a reddish-brown coat of hair with black brindled stripes. Muscles rippled beneath the creature's fur, muscles that Ranma had not realized that cats possessed. The terrible thing stretched its forelegs out well forward; then clawed at the grass of the clearing. Ranma gasped aloud as Ranko buried her face in the hollow of his right shoulder.

"Oh, my Goddess!" Scales exclaimed.

The tomcat began purring. To Ranma it was little different from the rumble of an earthquake and vastly more frightening.

"Well, now!" the old man said as the monstrous great tomcat began to strop against his side. " I can declare that I have been truly welcomed!"

"Eek!" Ranma and Ranko chorused.

The big tomcat bumped foreheads with the old man; then rolled over onto his back and writhed seductively, the way cats will do when they want to be petted. The old man laughed out loud as began to stroke the big tom's belly fur.

"This is so embarrassing!" Scales rumbled.

"What was that you were saying about running away from your own ass, Saotome-dono?" the old man asked, grinning wickedly at the mesmerized Saotome Childe. The cat's rumbling purr grew even louder, filling the air of the clearing.

"That's not...It ain't," Ranma said in a faint voice.

"Oh, but he is, Saotome-dono!" the old man said cheerfully, "and like the rest of you, he is magnificent. You should get to know him better!"

"Eek!" Ranma and Ranko chorused.

"Oh, dear me!" Scales said, staring hard at the cat. "Will you stop acting so servile? Such fawning is not becoming of one such as us!"

"Take my advice on this, Saotome-dono," the old man said. "Do not be so quick to stifle your sensuality. That was a mistake I made when I was young. In the end, it cost me a great deal."

"Did she leave you?" Ranko asked, startling the old man. "What was her name?"

"You are very perceptive," the old man said, looking a bit taken aback. "No, she did not leave me, at least, not until she died. Her name was Atalanta, and things could have been much better between us had I not been so...restrained."

"Oof!" Ranma said as Ranko gouged his ribs with her elbow.

"Akane really enjoys us when we go cat, you know," Ranko said.

"Gah! You gotta be kiddin' me!" Ranma said sounding surprised.

"No, the Scarlet one does not jest, Saotome," Scales rumbled. "I only wish it were not so...undignified."

"Undignifite, ya mean," Ranma said.

"I said what I meant, Saotome, but we ignore our guest", Scales said in his stentorian voice. "Why come you so late, Honored Master?"

"You only just now made this place big enough to accommodate us both, Saotome-dono," the old man said with a sunny smile. "You do have a great deal of ego, you know. It took you a while to make enough room."

"Huh?" Ranma noised, then asked, "This is just a dream! Why are you talkin' about it as though it's an actual place?"

"Because it is a place, Saotome-dono," the old man said. "And I must say, your feminine side has excellent tastes in landscape."

"It's a dream, not a real place!" Ranma said emphatically.

"Is it now?" the old man asked. "A real dreamer has dreams he can share, can he not?"

"Uh..." Ranma noised sounding both puzzled and worried.

"Time grows short," the old man said sounding regretful. "I must be going soon. Remember that you must leave room for the dreams of others, Saotome-dono. Interfere with them as little as possible. I suppose that is the single most important thing I have learned in my long life. Do not be quick to judge and do not leap into anything until you are certain you understand it."

"I...ah...okay," Ranma said.

"I think we'll meet again before very long," the old man said. "Until then, learn as much as you can and tread carefully on the waters."

"Huh?" Ranma and Ranko chorused.

"One never leaves tracks upon the waters, and sometimes, it is hard to find one's way back."

"We shall do as you say, Honored Master," Scales said.

"Good!" the old man exclaimed as a cloud of brightly scintillating lights surrounded him. "Remember, Saotome-dono, the Joketsu seldom lie, but then they seldom tell you everything, either."

Ranma was still blinking his eyes when the old man faded out of sight. The scintillating points of light left him beset with annoying after-images. He began rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. Before he could make the after-images fade, something hard and furry bumped into his chest, pushing him back against the unyielding granite of Tengu Rock. The furry thing was making a rumbling noise.

"Yah!" Ranma shouted in dismay.

"Easy, Saotome!" Ranko said. "We have to learn how to deal with this!"

"He-e-e-e!" Ranma noised as he sucked in an incredibly deep breath.

"Easy, Saotome!" Ranko said, though the tone of her voice told Ranma that she too was about to lose control. The thing's moist raspy tongue raked his face.

"Niyago!" Ranma cried out aloud as he began thrashing beneath his blankets.

Ranma's disturbed thrashing woke Akane. She sat up on the futon, throwing their covers back as she did so.

"What is it, Ranma?" Akane asked.

"Meeower!" The noise Ranma had just made sounded plaintive.

"Poor baby!" Akane said, stroking his head. "At least you haven't liquefied the air in our room this time."

"Meow! Oof! Oof! Rumble-buzz!"

"That's a good kitty," Akane said then giggled as she stroked Ranma's belly. It always amazed her how very cat-like Ranma's behavior became when in the throes of the neko-ken.

"I wonder if you won't actually turn into a cat one of these days, Ranma," Akane said to her fiance who was now purring quite loudly. She lay back down next to him and drew the covers over them both. Ranma cuddled up to her, still purring the way a well-tuned diesel rumbled.

"I love you, Ranma Saotome," Akane whispered in his ear.


"Sleep now, okay?"


"Good, kitty."

Ranma's purr slowed to a gentler rumble. The two of them slept.

Captain Kiima, formerly of the Hououzan Royal Guard, took to wing just as the soft grey light of early morn began to turn golden. Her life as a winged being had become complicated after her visit to Jusenkyou. A light sprinkle of rain, which had once been a mere nuisance, now held disastrous consequences for her. Her cursed form lacked wings as well as the ability to fly. Worse yet, no matter how often she tried, swimming in her cursed form required exhausting effort. The Tendo girl's body seemed to have been made of iron. On the positive side, Kiima's cursed form was enormously strong. As Tendo-Kiima, she could tie a bowline in a cold piece of one-inch pipe, but she did not allow this blessing of strength to mislead her into believing that her cursed form could withstand a fall from more than about twelve meters. Kiima had become very cautious when flying, making certain to never get caught very far from the ground whenever the sky threatened rain--or even a faint whiff of it.

Today, the weather did not appear capable of posing a threat. Once she had risen above the early morning mists, Kiima was greeted with the cold, burning blue of a faultless sky. She smiled at the ground below. The low-lying mists of morning had formed up into long thin streamers, leaving large stripes of ground in clear view. Her morning patrol would proceed quickly. Prince Haabu would be pleased and she derived a great deal of pleasure from pleasing the coldly purposeful Prince. Haabu's cold acknowledgement of a job well done touched a part of Kiima's soul whose existence she had not previously suspected. Haabu was never lavish with his praise, but she had come to recognize the faint narrowing of his eyes and the faint twitch at the corner of his mouth that signaled respect. Respect was something she had never received during her long and difficult service to Lord Safuron.

Finding the farm proved to be simpler than she expected. Someone had thought to tie a bright red umbrella to the post of the front gate. This, of course, was meant to warn unexpected guests that the household would be having a Cha No Yu that day and that casual visitors would not be welcome.

Kiima circled Ono-ke twice to be certain that she had the layout of the old farmstead memorized, then returned to their camp. Prince Haabu was waiting by the fire, sipping at a freshly made cup of tea. He looked up as she approached, then, much to Kiima's amazement, poured another cup of tea and offered it to her. His action did not go unnoticed by the Joketsuzoku males in their retinue. Several of them raised an eyebrow and gave her an extra-respectful nod of the head.

"What have you learned, Captain?" Haabu asked.

"The farm seems large enough to accommodate our entire party for a day or two," Kiima answered as she accepted the proffered tea. She took a sip. The hot liquid seemed wonderfully rich to her. It spread rapidly through her system, warming her to the very bone. "There is a sizeable barn, as well as another, smaller out-building. Judging from the freshly made trail between the smaller building and the house, I'd say that it has seen quite a bit of use, here of late."

"Is it a jake?" Haabu asked.

"I do not think so, M'Lord," Kiima answered. "I think it must have been a potting shed at one time. There is a field right next to it and even though the field has lain fallow for several years, I can still see that it had been laid out in broad beds."

"Is there a good place for the men to set up cook fires?" Haabu asked.

"Yes, M'Lord. The ground in front of the barn seems hard packed and there is little plant life there."


"The original jakes seem to have been to the west of the barn, M'Lord."

"Mmm," Haabu said then paused to sip his tea. "We did bring along a few sacks of lime, did we not?"

"Yes, M'Lord."

"I'll expect you to keep an eye on the men and make certain they keep their latrines well limed. I have no wish to offend my cousin with smell of their necessities."

"I will make certain that they understand the import of such measures, M'Lord."

"Good! I do not want a repeat of the nonsense we experienced outside Shanghai."

Kiima tried to repress a smile and failed. Haabu scratched the back of his neck and gave the ground a rueful stare.

"I found that affair rather embarrassing," Haabu added.

"I do recall that, M'Lord," Kiima said.

"Will you join me for breakfast?" Haabu asked.

"Of course, M'Lord," Kiima said. "I am honored."

Haabu gave Kiima a faint smile then said, "Don't let it go to your head, Captain. We're having cold rice and dried fish."

"What more could any soldier ask? Kiima asked.

"A soft warm bed and maiden fair, judging from the grumbles I've been overhearing," Haabu said.

Kiima laughed.

"Is that a desire of yours as well, my Prince?" Kiima asked.

"What good is a soft bed without a maiden in it?" Haabu asked as he took a bite of dried fish. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment then added, "It would otherwise only serve to make me lazy."

"I find that hard to believe, M'Lord," Kiima said, meaning it.

"I am not nearly so hard a man as I appear, Kiima," Prince Haabu. "Unfortunately, I am rather pressed for time and will be for the foreseeable future."

"So I have surmised, M'Lord," Kiima said as she nibbled at a rice cake.

"Let us hope you never have reason to regret throwing your lot in with me, Kiima," Haabu said sounding for the first time as though he may have doubts. "This whole thing could turn into an incredible disaster."

"I believe our die are cast, M'Lord," Kiima said, careful to make her tone sound thoughtful. "Come what may, we will find a way to deal with it."

Haabu stopped eating and looked into Kiima's eyes. His stare made her feel as though he was seeing right into her mind.

"With our die cast, we have little in the way of choice, do we not?" Haabu asked. "How difficult will it be for your people to settle here among the Wa, Kiima? I fear they will never be truly comfortable anywhere but on their ancestral lands."

"Absolutely, M'Lord," Kiima said, "but their choices are only two in number. They can choose to stand beside Lord Safuron and be annihilated with him, or come with us and live."

"Even so, I think a great many of them will choose to remain in the Middle Kingdom," Haabu said with a sigh. "It is funny how the new and unfamiliar can frighten people more than certain death."

"Perhaps that is because death is a certainty, M'Lord."

"Argh! Enough of this gloomy talk," Haabu exclaimed. "We will pursue each day as it comes. Is my cousin's household awake?"

"Judging from the steam leaving the vents, I should think at least part of the household has risen," Kiima said.

"Then let us have our breakfast and be on our way," Haabu said. "I look forward to seeing him again."

"So what's this Haabu guy like, Akane?" Nabiki asked as they sat in the furo together.

"All I have ever seen of him is his girl-side," Akane answered. "She's very tall, very beautiful and incredibly strong. As a girl, Haabu was stronger than Ranma as a guy."

Nabiki blinked at this news.

"Stronger than Ranma's guy half?"

Akane nodded her head.

"She picked me up with one hand and tossed me across the room as though I were nothing more than a baseball or something. That's what made Ranma mad at him."

"He beat Ranma's guy half while female?" Nabiki asked sounding awed.


"What does he look like?"

"His girl-side has platinum hair with dark blue forelocks and a really nice figure. She's a head taller than Ranma's guy-side. I don't know if Haabu's guy half will look anything like that or not. You know how much Ranma changes when he gets splashed."

"Is it true that he can fly?" Nabiki asked.

"Yes. And Ranma says that he can do all kinds of other things with his ki. He can form swords around his arms and he can throw ki-blades that cut through huge chunks of mountainside as though it were tofu."

"Hmm, Ryuu Kumon..." Nabiki muttered sounding bemused.


"Oh, sorry, I said Ryuu Kumon," Nabiki said as she broke out of her reverie. "I was thinking of him and the Yamasen-ken. I'd give you long odds that Ranma can do many of those same things now. You know how he is, Akane. Once Ranma has seen a technique, he can emulate it if not duplicate it exactly."

"But I haven't seen him practicing any of those things, Nabiki."

"He wouldn't practice that stuff where anyone could see him, Akane," Nabiki said, the smirked at her. "He'll only teach it to those he thinks are stable enough to have that kind of power."

Akane's face began to redden as she replied, "I suppose you're right. That would be the wise thing for him to do."

Ranma lay on his futon and stared at the ceiling. By rights, he should have already gotten up and been stirring about, but he was preoccupied.

(...but it was just a weird dream!)

{{I beg disagree, Saotome. Our predecessor visited us last night. Now we are obliged to go and visit him.}}

(Visit him where, Scales? It ain't like he gave us a map or nothin' and the Bayankala is a long ways away from Nerima. Ya can't go around visitin' people in their dreams.)

(But it wasn't a dream, Saotome. We were in our special place last night.)

(We don't have no special place, I'm tellin' ya! That's just a dream!)

{{Oh, come now, Saotome. What are you running from?}}

(I ain't runnin' from nothin'!)

{{Then why are you so worried, hmm?}}

('Cause I think I'm startin' ta have delusions of grandosity, that's why!)

(You mean 'grandeur', Saotome.)

{{I suspect he has confused 'grandeur' with 'grandiose', Scarlet One.}}

(Yeah! I'm havin' dreams of gandeurosity! It ain't right! Who am I to think I gotta rush around tryin' to save the world?)

(Like it or not, Saotome, I'm a pillar of the community now. You will just have to learn to act like it.)

(That's the most confusing statement I think I ever heard, Red!)

{{It confuses only because you forget what you are, Saotome.}}

(And what am I, huh? I'm a freak!)

(I am _not_ a freak, Saotome! We are a beautiful woman.)


{{And a beautiful Dragon.}}

(And a very sexy, handsome man to boot, Saotome.)

(A man is all I ever expected to be. That and to be good at The Art.)

{{So you have achieved more than you expected.}}

(Yeah, now you are a hot chick, a real hunk, a beautiful blue dragon, and now I'm gonna be a pillar of the community.)

(Argh! I ain't no pillar, communital or otherwise!)

{{I am sorry to annoy us, Saotome, but becoming a pillar of the community is part and parcel with marrying our Treasure. Whom, do you suppose, everyone expects to fill the role of Soun Tendo in Nerima once he retires?}}

(What role? Neighborhood crybaby?)

(You know better than that, Saotome!)

{{Indeed, Tendo-san does a great deal in Nerima that we have taken little notice of so far, Saotome.}}

(I don't know nothin' about all that stuff he does!)

{{Ignorance is easily cured.}}

(Aw, man! What is happenin' to me?)

(I'm growing up, Saotome, ready or not!)

(All right, all right, all right, already! Geez! I'll go along with this "pillar of the community" stuff.)

{{Now you are using our head, Saotome. With power such as ours, comes responsibilities.}}

(But forget all that superhero junk! That kinda crap is for manga, not real life. We might be a dragon, but we can't be everywhere at once and right every wrong and save every idiot from his own stupidity. We got a life of our own to live!)

(Okay, Ranma.)

(We're gonna have kids of our own to raise and students to teach.)

{{And patients to treat?}}

(I don't know about that yet, Scales. We got plenty enough on our plate as it is. We don't do nothin' about nothin' until we're certain we understand the situation, got it?)

{{(Hai, Saotome-dono!)}}

(I still ain't forgot that mess we got into with that dogcatcher.)


"What did I just do to myself?" Ranma asked the ceiling, which was now much nearer than when he had been lying on his futon.

By mid-morning, Kasumi Tendo hummed happily to herself as she finished up the kitchen. She was listening, with more than half an ear, to Ranma and Akane's antics. Ranma had, apparently, invented a previously unknown martial arts technique. He would walk about in his male form with his shirt completely buttoned, then suddenly turn female, but with his shirt half off. The technique seemed quite effective, on Akane at least.

"Will you not do _that_?" Akane shouted.

"Hey! Haabu's on his way here. I gotta be prepared for the worst just in case."

"By flashing your boobs at him? What are you planning to do to him, Ranma?"

Kasumi's smile broadened when she heard Nabiki cackle. She had to admit, while Ranma seemed understand little about actually being a girl, he certainly knew how to do the things that would distract or fluster other men while in his female form.

"Hey, the guy can't handle it. Every time he sees a pair of breasts, he turns into a complete boob, even when the breasts are his. How da ya think I whipped him the last time?"

"Are you sure that's all you did to him?" Akane asked darkly.

And, Kasumi silently observed, Akane knew all too well how to lance through Ranma's defenses. For all his braggadocio, Ranma's curse was definitely a drag on his confidence. Kasumi reminded herself to have a talk with Akane about this. It wouldn't do for her to overplay that particular card.

"You know better than that!" Ranma shouted sounding offended.

"I'm glad you showed me this trick, Ranma," Nabiki said. Kasumi could all but hear Nabiki's knowing smirk as her middle sister continued speaking. "I'll remember it the next time I get into a difficult negotiation with some greedy salary-man."

"Hah!" Kasumi noised. The truly terrible thing about Nabiki was that she could do such things to men while wearing the habit of the nun. Nabiki could ooze naughtiness when she wanted and her state of dress made no real difference to the outcome.

"Nabiki!" Akane scolded. "Stop encouraging him! He's a big enough hentai as it is!"

"That's okay, Akane," Nabiki said in the voice she used whenever she knew she had Akane at a disadvantage. "He isn't the only hentai around here, now is he?"

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Akane replied with a sniff.

Oh, I just realized where Akane picked up her method for needling Ranma, Kasumi thought. Perhaps I should discuss it with the two of them at the same time.

The doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Kasumi called to the others as she hastened toward the front door. She found three males of the Joketsuzoku waiting outside. All of them were surprisingly tall and more than a little handsome in a rustic sort of way. Their garb was out of fashion by at least a couple of centuries.

The men gasped aloud upon seeing Kasumi. They fell back a few paces. Two of the men knelt while the third man, who appeared to be the leader, gave Kasumi a deep, respectful bow.

"Greetings and good morning, Honored Elder," the man said without daring to raise his eyes.

Kasumi blinked at this. It took her a moment to realize that the man was not speaking in deference to her age, but instead had just granted her a title of deep respect. She found that to be rather puzzling even though flattering.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Kasumi said cheerfully. "Won't you come in?"

"We dare not, Honored Elder," the leader said in respectful tones, "even though we are deeply honored by your generous offer. We come as heralds for Prince Haabu, Lord of the Musk and Guardian of the Tree of Knowledge."

"Oh, I see," Kasumi said. "I suppose then you wish to know where to set up the tea service?"

"If you would be so kind as to have one of your servants point it out to us, Honored Elder," the leader said, "we would be most grateful."

"Oh, I can show you where to set up," Kasumi said. "I speak for the landowner in this matter."

"Please accept our apologies for putting you to such trouble, Honored Elder," the man responded. He bowed deeply once again.

"Not a bit of it!" Kasumi said cheerfully as she stepped outside, "I enjoy having guests. Follow me, please."

The men followed her out into the front yard. She showed them the spot Tofu suggested would be the driest by the time Haabu and his party arrived.

"I hope this will do," Kasumi said. "The weather has not been kind to us of late, and most of the yard is still quite soggy."

"This is as good as may be expected under the conditions, Honored Elder," the leader said. "We will make the necessary preparations on this spot."

"Oh, good," Kasumi said. "A formal tea should be held outdoors if at all possible, don't you think?"

"Of course, Honored Elder," the leader said.

"Is there anything else I can help you with?" Kasumi asked.

"Perhaps, Honored Elder," the leader said. "There are some twenty of us in Lord Haabu's party. We will need a place to camp for a day or two. Would you happen to know of a good place?"

"Why, right around the other side of this house we have a perfectly gorgeous barn, why not stay in it? You needn't go tramping all about the country in search of camp," Kasumi said.

"You are too kind, Honored Elder," the man said giving Kasumi yet another unnecessarily deep bow.

"You are more than welcome," Kasumi replied.

"If you will excuse me, Honored Elder," the man said. "I should be setting my men to work now."

"Of course, Gentle Sir," Kasumi said with a sunny smile as she turned to go. "Just ask if you need anything more."

"Thank you, M'Lady," the man said as he produced a whistle from his vest pocket. He blew a short sharp note on the instrument. The shrill notes of the whistle had hardly died away before Joketsuzoku men came pouring through the gates of Ono-ke, all of them burdened with equipment and baggage. Kasumi watched them for a moment before quietly returning to the house.

Doctor Tofu Ono was not at all prepared for what he found when he returned to Ono-ke. The old farmstead had not looked this good for a decade. The house had been painted. The fences had been mended. Someone had trimmed all the shrubbery and there wasn't a weed to be found anywhere in the yard. Someone had even gone to the trouble of pulling the grass that had sprouted up between the flagstones of the driveway and walks, while leaving the mosses untouched. He sat and stared for a moment. To be sure, he expected to find differences in the old domicile at any time, given that Ranma was in the vicinity, but these were not the kinds of differences he had reason to anticipate.

Before Tofu could become oriented enough to get out of the ambulance, Kasumi walked out and stood by the driver's door. Tofu rolled down the window before remembering to close his mouth. Kasumi was giving him an extra sunny smile.

"What happened here?" Tofu asked.

"The Joketsuzoku," Kasumi said.


"They arrived as part of Prince Haabu's party," Kasumi explained.

"Why did they do all of this?" Tofu asked.

"They were helping Prince Haabu prepare for the Cha No Yu."

"This much work? For a Cha No Yu?"

Kasumi giggled and nodded her head.

"This isn't exactly what I have come to expect from the Joketsuzoku."

"You should have seen Ranma's face," Kasumi said, giggling once again. "He was terrified."

"Well, I must admit, Kasumi, it is very strange...No! It's worse than that. It's downright eerie."

Kasumi answered with a smile and a faint shrug of the shoulders.

"Perhaps I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth," Tofu said as he scratched the back of his neck. "Where is everyone?"

"Ranma and Akane are having their Cha No Yu with Prince Haabu and someone I've never seen before," Kasumi said. "The Joketsu men that came with him are standing guard around the screens. The rest of us are having tea and snacks. Would you care to join us?"

"Nothing else has happened?" Tofu asked.

Kasumi shook her head.

"I suppose I brought all these extra first aid supplies for nothing, then."

Kasumi smiled at him then turned to walk back inside. Tofu hastened to get out of the ambulance and follow her. He bumbled along behind, trying to take in everything that had happened to his ancestral home as he walked.

Prince Haabu's men had set up the sort of outdoor screening that had been in common use by the samurai class up through the early parts of the Meiji Era. The purpose of it, of course, was to afford the leadership class some modicum of privacy while allowing them to meet outdoors. The screening, just opaque silk cloth stretched tightly between two poles firmly embedded in the ground, offered no protection from the elements, save possibly as a mild windbreak. They had laid down a matted area in the center of the screened-in area, carefully leaving a patch of bare ground for Haabu to set up a brazier.

Ranma Saotome found himself sitting by his fiancee marveling at Prince Haabu's skill. The Musk Prince had, apparently, done a great deal of homework.

(Wow, Saotome, he hasn't made a single mistake!)

(Yeah, and he's doin' one of the longer forms, too.)

(He isn't half-bad in the grace department, either.)

(Yeah, he's almost as good as I am.)

(Probably his girl-half at work, but you know, I like him better as a guy. He's handsome.)

(Hey! Hey! Hey!)

(Humph! You think his girl-half is pretty!)

(Well who wouldn't? Who wouldn't think my girl-half isn't pretty?)

(Easy on the double negatives, Saotome. I wonder if he talks to his girl-half?)

(I got no idea and we ain't gonna ask. You let Scales do any talkin' that's gotta be done. We hafta get this right!)

(Don't worry, Saotome. I understand. Hey, who is this character in the hooded cloak, anyway?)

(I don't know, but his...her outline sure looks familiar.)

(So does her aura.)

(Oh, shit!)

((It's Kiima!))

(Why is she hidin' in her cursed form?)

(Quick, Saotome! Check and see if Akane has figured it out yet.)

(So far, so good...I think.)

(What the hell are we going to do now?)

(Fight a rear-guard action and try to lead Haabu and his men away from Tofu's house.)

(Oh, man!)

(We'll lead 'em over to the quarry if we can. Maybe from there we can figure out a way to escape.)

(Is that the best you can do?)

(You got any better ideas? You know what's gonna happen once the Tomboy figgers out that Kiima is here. All hell's gonna break loose.)

(Stay cool, Saotome. Let's not start shaking. Drink the tea.)

(Yeah, yeah.)

(Remember to do all the rigmarole!)

(Yeah, yeah!)

(Well, that's pretty much the end of the formalities, Saotome. Any new ideas, yet?)

(Nope. You think of anything yet?)

(Wait! What's Haabu saying? I don't believe this.)

" if you would be kind enough to permit it, Cousin, I should like to speak with your betrothed, if I may."


(Yep, that's what he said. Scales?)

(Yo, Scales!)

"Please, do, Cousin," Ranma rumbled in his draconian voice.

(Geez, we sound like shit-daddy whenever Scales takes over.)

(Yeah, well, ya gotta give the old man credit on that score. He surprises people with his oratory.)

(Oratory? You're getting better, Saotome. Keep it up!)

Prince Haabu turned to face Akane Tendo. Ranma took in a very deep breath. Much to the shock of everyone, Haabu then bowed so low that his forehead touched the mats.

"On my last visit to Nihon, M'Lady, I was not entirely myself. I was afflicted at the time and behaved in a most unseemly manner towards you. I wish to express my deepest regrets for my misbehavior and I humbly ask your forgiveness."

(Oh, man! I hope the Tomboy doesn't blow this! One wrong word or gesture and Haabu will be mad for months.)

Akane returned Haabu's bow, touching her own forehead to the mat, saying, "It was a mutual misunderstanding, Haabu- sama. The fault lies with me as much as you. Besides, I am grateful to you for having saved me from that man. In truth, all you did was return me to my fiance, which was the proper thing to do under the circumstances. Let us have bygones be bygones and think of them no more."

(Oh, wow! I didn't think she had it in her!)

(It ain't over yet, Saotome. The cursed hawk-lady is pulling her hood off.)

(Aw, man! Everything went real well until now.)

Akane was careful to sit up straight at the same time as Prince Haabu.

(Man, that took a lot outta Haabu. Look at him blush!)

(Yeah, I know, Saotome. His skin is so red it makes those white bangs of his look pink.)

Akane noticed Tendo-Kiima and froze. Time froze. The stars stopped in their tracks. The silence instantly became suffocating.

(Come on, Tomboy! Stay cool!)

(You can do it, Akane! Stay calm, Akane!)

{{Our treasure is furious.}}

((Oh, shit!))

The deafening silence was broken by the faint plopping sound that Tendo-Kiima's forehead made as the cursed Hououzanjin prostrated herself in front of Akane.

(Stay cool, Tomboy!)

(What do ya think she'll do, Saotome?)

(Why are ya askin' me that? You're the girl-half of this operation! It ain't good when two girls show up at a party wearin' the same dress! How's Akane gonna take somebody showin' up at a Cha No Yu wearin' her body?)

Akane reached out and touched Tendo-Kiima's shoulder gently with the fingertips of her right hand. Tendo-Kiima looked up, obviously frightened.

"There is no need for you to apologize, Kiima," Akane said. "You were under orders."

Haabu gave a faint sigh of relief. Ranma continued to hold his breath.

"But why are you here with Prince Haabu? I don't understand," Akane said.

"A great many things have changed in the Middle Kingdom, Tendo-dono," Haabu said.

(Well, hey! Maybe we're gonna live over this after all.)

(Breathe, Saotome! Breathe. We look funny wearing blue skin.)

"Did Safuron die after we left?" Akane asked.

"No," Haabu said with a faint smile, "but after you and my cousin here defeated him, a great many things changed. It has been necessary to achieve a new political balance, as well as making other kinds of changes."

(Gonna hafta keep an eye on Haabu, Red.)

(Yeah, he knows how to get on Akane's good side fast, doesn't he? Handsome bastard!)

(I got half a mind ta sic Nabiki on him.)

(I wish Nabiki were here right now, Saotome. Things are going get interesting from this point on. It would be good to have her around.)

(Yeah, but we can't just call her in. It'd be a breach of eddy-kwet and all that other stuff.)

(Etiquette, Saotome.)

(That's what I said, wasn't it?)

(No, not quite.)

(Hey, it's gotten real quiet. I think everybody's waitin' on me to say somethin'. Scales?)

"I find it interesting that you travel with a retinue of Joketsuzoku men, Cousin, and that they seem to accept Kiima as your second in command," Ranma said in a rumbling voice, sounding very much like his father. Akane glanced at him as though something might be wrong with him. Ranma felt a tightening at the corners of his mouth as he suppressed a grin.

"How well do you know the Joketsuzoku, Cousin?" Haabu asked.

(Hah! What don't I know?)

(Hang on a minute, Saotome. How much do we know about Soun Tendo?)

(Huh? Oh, I gotcha. There's prob'ly lots of stuff we don't know, about 'em, huh?)

"Beyond their rather curious laws concerning marriage and one or two of their fighting techniques, very little," Ranma answered. "I do know that Ko Lon is a cunning and highly skilled opponent."

Akane gravely nodded her head in agreement.

"I somehow doubt she regards you as an opponent, Cousin," Haabu said, giving Ranma one of his rare smiles. "It is far more likely that she thinks of you as a valuable asset."

"Asset is right!" Ranma said. "She thinks of me as being little more than a stud horse. That's why I think of her as an opponent."

Prince Haabu laughed out loud, causing both Kiima and Akane to shiver. Ranma ruefully grinned.

"Is that such a bad thing?" Haabu asked. "From what I have seen of her great-grand daughter, I would have expected you to take her up on the offer."

Akane audibly ground her teeth. Kiima was doing the same.

(Huh? What's Kiima gettin' jealous about?)

(Yeah, that is weird, Saotome. I didn't think she liked me at all. Something really weird is goin' on.)

(Where's Nabiki when I really need her?)

(Just out of reach, Saotome. Just out of reach.)

"There is a lot more to Xian Pu than her beauty, Cousin," Ranma rumbled. "Don't be fooled by the bait."

"Ranma is an expert on bait!" Akane exclaimed.

"Yes, I know! I found that out the hard way," Haabu said as he burst out laughing. The sound of it gave even Ranma a case of the gooseflesh. Even so, Akane rolled her eyes and joined Haabu in his mirth.

(So why does he think that's so funny? He could do the same thing after ya splash him with water.)

(He isn't as flexible as I am, Saotome. He's Chinese, remember? They're bigger prudes than you are. Let's try to stay cool about this.)

(Yeah, okay. Scales? Don't say nothin' too smart. We don't want a brawl.)

"You have my humblest apologies, for that, Cousin," Ranma said. "You are too formidable an opponent to fight in a strictly conventional manner."

(Ya didn't hafta go that far, Scales!)

"There is no need for apology, Cousin," Haabu said, suddenly sobering. "You taught me an invaluable lesson at the conclusion of that affair. A lesson I shall never forget."

"And you taught me not to bite off more than I can chew," Ranma said.

Akane gave Ranma a questioning stare. Kiima covered her mouth with one hand as she giggled. Ranma and Haabu glanced at the two women, then each other. They both laughed. Prince Haabu offered Ranma his hand. Ranma reached across the intervening space between them and gripped Haabu's forearm. Haabu responded in kind.

"It is good to see you again, Cousin," Haabu said sincerely.

"Friends?" Ranma asked.

"And kinsmen!" Haabu said in answer.

(And he really means it, Saotome!)

(Yeah, kinda gets to ya, don't it?)

(We don't have many friends.)

(We damn sure don't have any like Haabu!)

{{Humph! His use of the term "Cousin" is more than a polite phrase, Saotome. There aren't many dragons left in this life.}}

(Just the three of us, right?)

{{Only two of us. Our predecessor is no longer of this world, Saotome.}}

((We just saw him last night!))

{{Yes, but we were not in this world.}}

Inside the house, Nabiki heard Haabu's laughter and shuddered. The sound frightened her and attracted her all at one and the same time.

"Oh, my!" Kasumi exclaimed, drawing Nabiki's attention to her older sister. "Prince Haabu is serious, even when he laughs."

"Personally, I'm just happy to hear them laughing," Tofu said. "I hate to think what would happen if those two were to begin fighting."

Nabiki only cocked an eyebrow in response to Tofu and said, "It's only late afternoon, you know. We still have plenty of daylight left."

"I don't think they will fight, Nabiki," Kasumi said. "That is not what I feel coming from them."

"Oh?" Nabiki asked.

"Truly," Kasumi said. "I can feel a great harmony building between Ranma and Haabu."

"Well, that's good news," Nabiki said without blinking an eye. She had long known about Kasumi's empathetic talent. Most Japanese had such a skill to one degree or another. It was a product of culture and nurture. Kasumi, though, was talented. "What about Akane?"

Kasumi closed her eyes as she took a deep breath. After a moment's hesitation, she opened her eyes and said, sounding surprised, "She's frightened half out of her wits!"

"Akane? Scared?" Nabiki asked. "Of what?"

"I think she is afraid of losing Ranma," Kasumi said. "You know how insecure she is."

"Yeah, but surely she isn't afraid that Ranma is going to fall in love with Haabu!" Nabiki said. "Ranma would never go for another guy, and from what I've been told, neither would Haabu."

"Even so, she is very alarmed, Nabiki," Kasumi said.

"We need to have a talk with her, Sis," Nabiki said, "and find out for sure what is bothering her so much."

The doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," Kasumi said.

What on earth could be bothering Akane so much that Kasumi could be aware of it without being able to see or here Akane at all? Nabiki wondered silently to herself. Had there been an outbreak of hostility she would have understood Akane's fear. After all, Haabu was the only man Nabiki knew of that Ranma had ever admitted to fearing.

At the front door, the same Joketsuzoku male she had spoken with earlier in the morning greeted Kasumi.

"Prince Haabu, Lord of the Musk and Guardian of the Archives, bids me to invite you and your family to dine with him at sunset, Honored Elder," the man said with a deep bow.

"We are greatly honored," Kasumi said as she returned the man's bow. "Please, give Prince Haabu my compliments and inform him that we should be very happy to dine with him."

"Will that be all, Honored Elder?" the man asked.

"Yes, thank you, Gentle Sir," Kasumi said with a smile.

The man backed away three steps, then turned and left to be about his duties. Kasumi smiled after him for a moment before closing the door.

"Set them down here," Prince Haabu told the two men, indicating a place between himself and Ranma. They had only just moments ago removed the chadogu. The two men carefully placed the long, cloth-wrapped bundle upon the tatami. A third man, wearing heavy gloves, stood to one side of Haabu, holding a wooden staff about two-meters long. It was just thick enough for a man to grip comfortably and was made of some heavy wood that looked almost like ivory. The staff had not been finished with varnish or oil, but it had the shiny patina of a pole arm that had seen much use.

"Now unwrap them," Haabu said. "Be certain not to touch either staff!"

The men complied, and just as Haabu commanded, they were very careful about not touching the staffs as they unwrapped them. Haabu held out his right hand and the man wearing the heavy gloves carefully placed the staff he was holding in Haabu's hand.

"You may leave us, now," Prince Haabu said with a nod of his head. "Thank you."

"You are most welcome, Prince Haabu," the three men chorused. The men departed quickly.

Ranma and Akane examined the two staffs with great curiosity. Kiima glanced at the two pieces of wood and shuddered. One was incredibly straight and obviously made from the same ivory colored wood of which Haabu's staff had been made. The other was quite different. It had been made from a tree or branch that was quite gnarled and had a heavily twisted grain. Neither staff had been completely finished. All either piece of wood had received was a rough sanding.

(I wonder what is up with these things, Saotome? Did you see how Kiima reacted?)

(Yeah, and those three soldiers weren't too happy about handlin' 'em either.)

"Among the several things I brought for you, Cousin, these two are the most immediately potent," Haabu said in a grave voice.

"You brought them for me?" Ranma asked. "I had not expected you to have much use for weapons, Cousin. Have you taken up the bo?"

"Rightly so, Cousin. You and I are weapons in our own right and therefore have little use for them, but these two pieces of wood are intended to be used as staffs, more than used as bo."

Akane and Ranma gave Prince Haabu a pair of curious looks.

"Touch the white one with the back of your hand, Cousin," Haabu said.

Ranma reached out towards the white staff with his hand held palm up.

"Touch it lightly, Cousin!" Haabu warned. "Very lightly."

Ranma nodded his head, then touched the staff with the back of his hand.

(Whoa! It's made from a Hinako tree, Saotome!)

Ranma snatched his tingling hand away from the staff, looking up at Haabu in surprise.

"It absorbs ki!" Ranma exclaimed. "It's like Hinako- sensei's Happou-Go-En Satsu. What kind of wood is that?"

"It is a variety of boxwood which is only known to grow in a few places at very high elevations," Haabu said. "This staff was made from the trunk of a tree almost three centuries old."

"I gather that these boxwood trees grow slowly," Akane said in a speculative voice.

"Indeed they do, M'Lady," Haabu said. "The other staff is also made from an exceedingly slow-growing tree known as the ironwood."

"Elder Ko Lon carries a staff very much like this one," Akane said.

"Yes, she does," Haabu said. "This is the one I tried to train with while I was locked in my cursed form."

(Oho! Do you get it, Saotome?)

(Oh, yeah. All of a sudden I think I know why we never see Ko Lon without that crooked stick of hers. She stores ki in it like it was a battery or somethin'.)

"These kinds of staffs can be quite deadly for the first few years after they have been cut. A thief tried to abscond with this ironwood staff while we were camped along the Yangtze. He died before we could get to him."

"They can soak up that much of a person's ki?" Akane asked.

"A man foolish enough to take up an ironwood staff such as this one would be almost certain to die before he could release it. The muscles spasm on contact with it, you see. Only a woman may safely handle an ironwood staff such as this, and then only if she is well trained and possesses a powerful ki," Haabu said. "Likewise, a woman should never touch a boxwood staff such as this one."

Akane swallowed, then glanced at Ranma.

(Well, what do you think, Saotome? Do we let her?)

(Let her! Have you lost our mind? We don't _let_ Akane do anything. We either get her to touch the damned thing now and get it over with, or she'll try to sneak around and touch it while we ain't there to stop her. Now what do you think?)

(I think you're learning pretty fast, Saotome.)

"Go ahead, Akane, just be sure to use only the back of your hand and touch it lightly," Ranma said.

Akane gingerly reached out with the back of her hand. As her skin came into contact with the ironwood staff, she paled visibly as her fingers closed uncontrollably into a hard fist, but Akane refused to break contact.

{{Our Treasure wishes to master the staff.}}

(I suppose I should have expected that, huh?)

(Stop her, Ranma! That thing is going to hurt her!)

(A good sensei knows when to let a student teach herself, Red.)

(Dammit, Ranma!)

{{I agree with Saotome, Scarlet One. We must allow our Treasure this opportunity to test herself.}}

(Dammit! She's already as white as a sheet!)

"Lord Haabu!" Kiima cried out in an alarmed voice. Haabu waived her silent with one hand.

"Remain calm, Captain," Haabu said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Allow Lady Saotome to do as she thinks best."

Akane's face suddenly became very determined. She continued to hold the back of her clenched fist against the staff.

"Come on, Tomboy!" Ranma said in a hoarse whisper. "Where's that old brute strength?"

Akane's lips curled into a snarl as her hand began to quiver. Even so, she grew paler.

"I'm gonna stop this on the count of ten, Tomboy," Ranma said. "Don't get mad at me. It'll be for your own good."

Akane began to shake all over.

"One," Ranma said.

Akane's eyes squinted and the lines around her mouth grew harder. Her arm began to quiver uncontrollably.

"Two," Ranma said.

Akane began to growl.

"Three," Ranma said.

"Ai-i-i-ya-a-ah!" Akane shouted as her fist opened. "Got it!"

"Four!" Ranma called out.

Akane, much to everyone's amazement, managed to remove the back of her hand from the staff without help.

"You okay, Akane?" Ranma asked.

"I feel like I might float away on the wind," Akane said in a very tired voice.

Kiima and Haabu were staring at Akane in slack-jawed amazement.

"What incredible will!" Haabu exclaimed. "Still, you should not try to handle this staff by yourself for a while, Lady Saotome."

Akane weakly nodded her head in agreement.

"Is she always this determined, Cousin?" Haabu asked Ranma.

"My Treasure is as steady as they come, Haabu-dono," Ranma said with more than a little pride in his voice.

"Are you sure you are all right, Tendo-san?" Kiima asked.

"Yes, thank you, Captain Kiima," Akane said in a weak voice. "I'm...I'm just a little tired ... and ... and ... I can't believe how hungry I am!"

Ranma and Haabu both gave her knowing laughs, causing Kiima to fume at both of them. Haabu clapped his hands together and one of the Joketsuzoku men appeared almost instantly, as though he had popped up out of the ground.

"How long before we may eat?" Haabu asked.

"Cook says the first course will be ready in moments, M'Lord," the man answered.

"Good!" Haabu exclaimed. "Fetch the remaining cushions then, and send someone after the Elder Tendo and her family."

"Yes, M'Lord," the man said as he scurried away.

Haabu's temporary compound quickly filled with busy Joketsuzoku males as they set about preparing the place for dinner.

As she stepped out of the house, Nabiki found that she had a personal escort in the form of a tall, handsome Joketsuzoku male. Not that he was anything to get excited about. As far as Nabiki could tell the man had the self- discipline she would have expected of a eunuch. These guys were nothing like Muu Su, but then, why would she expect Muu Su to be a representative example of any group of people?

A few feet ahead of Nabiki and her escort, Kasumi and Doctor Tofu were walking side by side. Ahead of them was a Joketsuzoku male in full formal regalia, leading them to the screened in area of side-yard west of the house. I wonder if we'll be having music with dinner? Nabiki thought silently to herself. Sure enough, she spied one of the men seating himself with his back to the silken wall of the temporary pavilion, flute in hand.

One of the men swung open a silk panel and the man ahead of Kasumi and Tofu motioned for them to halt. The lead man stepped through the opening then rang a bell.

"M'Lord Prince Haabu, I bring you the Honored Elder Tendo Kasumi and her consort, Ono Tofu, Isha!"

While all this had been going on, Nabiki had been busy taking in everything inside the pavilion. Prince Haabu had already caught her eye where he sat, but when he stood up, her heart froze in her chest.

"He's magnificent!" Nabiki whispered aloud to herself, causing her escort to start hard enough that his armor rattled. Nabiki almost laughed out loud watching the unprepared Ranma scramble to his feet and join Haabu in a bow toward Kasumi and Tofu. Akane remained seated, but bowed so low that her forehead touched the mats. Or was that Akane? There were two Akanes! One of them was smiling and waving from her seated position rather than bowing. The smile was Akane's trademark welcome.

"What the hell?" Nabiki whispered to herself.

"The lady bowing to your sister is Captain Kiima, M'Lady," Nabiki's escort whispered out of the side of his mouth. "Formerly of the Hououzanjin Royal Guards. She's Jusenkyou cursed, but not a bad sort--for an officer."

"Thank you," Nabiki said as she turned her head and looked up at her escort as she struggled to calm herself. Nabiki had known about the spring of drowned Akane, of course, but found seeing the only person known to bear its curse unnerving.

"You are quite welcome, M'lady," her escort replied. "It is time for you to make your entrance, M'lady. Shall we?"

Nabiki took in a deep breath and let her Ice Queen persona settle about her. Her escort seemed startled by her sudden change in demeanor, but managed to maintain his bearing. They stepped forward as the lead man rang the little bell.

"M'Lord Prince Haabu, I give you the Lady Tendo Nabiki!"

Much to Nabiki's delight, Haabu froze up. He was so mesmerized by her appearance that he forgot to bow. Nabiki was careful to hold her smirk inside and not let it show on her icy face. Ignoring the pain in her half-healed ankle, she downshifted her derriere and strolled towards the mind-locked Prince of the Musk. The gait Nabiki was using was one she had practiced for hours until she had it down to absolute perfection. It was sexy, but not of the streetwalker's style. This was a walk that said, "I'm female. I'm beautiful. I am the Queen. And I own you, your ass and all its fittings. Don't you forget it!" Marlene Dietrich would have been proud of her.

Ranma, Nabiki noticed, gave Haabu a sidelong glance and very nearly burst out laughing. Nabiki was grateful to him for maintaining his self-control. Prince Haabu, for his part, remained completely mesmerized. Nabiki offered him her right hand. That seemed to get Haabu's brain going again. He gently took Nabiki's hand in his own, then carefully bowed over it. He did not, Nabiki was pleased to note, actually touch her hand with his lips. He only pretended to kiss her hand, which was the proper thing to do on formal occasions.

Nabiki very nearly lost her bearing at the touch of Haabu's hand. The cold power of the man was palpable, and he smelled good. Clearly, Haabu was not given to overindulgence in anything, not even tea. He certainly did not smoke or drink much alcohol. A man who takes good care of himself, will likely take good care of others, some part of Nabiki's mind silently noted.

"Thank you for honoring us with your presence, Lady Tendo," Prince Haabu said in a faint voice.

Gotcha! Nabiki said silently to herself. Be still heart 'o mine! She then admonished herself, startled that it was necessary. For a long moment, she was afraid she would blush and thereby ruin the whole thing.

"Welcome to Japan, Prince Haabu," Nabiki said, flashing the tall prince a cold smile. "We are very pleased to welcome you to our domain."

Out of the corner of one eye, Nabiki noticed that Akane was rolling her eyes. Kiima's jaw sagged with surprise, even as she stared daggers at Nabiki. Kasumi was giving Nabiki that tight little smile she gave whenever she caught Nabiki doing something naughty but amusing. Haabu was smiling at her as though he had just found a chest full of uncut jade.

"Indeed," Haabu said, pausing to clear his throat, "I find suddenly that the Land of the Wa is far more beautiful than I remembered it."

"We are greatly pleased that you find it so, Prince Haabu," Nabiki coolly rejoined.

Haabu obviously found her reply amusing. His smile grew considerably as he said, "This way, please. I have the perfect place for you."

Well, looky here, Nabiki! Nabiki thought to herself. He is going to personally escort you to your cushion. She strolled along behind the tall prince, feeling very proud of herself. Ranma fell in step beside her for a pace or two and leaned over so that he could whisper in her ear.

"How the hell didja do that without pullin' your shirt off, Nabiki?" Ranma asked.

Nabiki answered him with an elbow to the ribs. Ranma gave her a quick smirk as he went off to sit beside Akane. The Joketsu flautist began playing an ancient Chinese tune, The Nightingale. He's quite good, some part of Nabiki's mind noted. I'll have to remember to compliment him.

As Nabiki sat down, two of the Joketsuzoku men encased a pair of staffs in a rich piece of heavy silk cloth and carried them away. Akane, Nabiki noticed, seemed bleary-eyed and distant, almost as though she had been drinking. Nabiki refrained from cocking an eyebrow at her younger sister over this, reminding herself that she was here to pick up as much information as possible. Timing was everything in this kind of situation.

The Joketsuzoku began serving the first course, prawn and scallop yaki-ebi, with fresh cut mint and a light soup of clear chicken broth with freshly diced spring onions. The portions were suitably small for a multi-course meal, with only two prawns and a scallop on each skewer. The prawns and scallops were done to a delicate turn. Most chefs tended to overcook prawns, making them just a wee bit too tough for Nabiki's liking, but these were just right and had been cooked over an open fire.

"My compliments to the chef," Nabiki said, catching Prince Haabu's eye where he sat across from her.

Haabu remained speechless. All he could do was give her a captivated smile. In the background, the sound of the flautist's performance tugged at Nabiki's heartstrings.

"I must agree," Kasumi said, not quite breaking the spell. "This is exceptionally good. Do you suppose I could ask him for a few lessons?"

Haabu visibly shook himself, obviously having a hard time remembering his manners.

"Of course, Honored Elder," Prince Haabu said. "You may have him at your disposal all day tomorrow if you wish it."

Kasumi gave Haabu one of her sunniest smiles and said, "Oh, that would be wonderful! I'll help him make breakfast in the morning!"

Haabu's jaw sagged with surprise at this. Nabiki noticed that Kiima almost laughed out loud. None of Nabiki's own contingent gave this inadvertent gaff a second thought.

"The men do rise very early in the morning, Honored Elder," Haabu said.

"Oh, good!" Kasumi said sounding delighted. "So do I. I love getting an early start on the day."

Haabu glanced at Nabiki, looking somewhat dismayed. Well, Nabiki thought to herself, it's me to the rescue again.

"Cooking is her art, Prince Haabu," Nabiki said in a carefully calculated tone of amusement, "just as combat is yours."

Haabu suddenly looked relieved and mouthed a silent "Thank you" at Nabiki before speaking aloud. "Then I am sure our Noble Chef will be delighted to have you join him by his fireside, Lady Tendo."

"Oh, my! I am so looking forward to it," Kasumi said with effusive joy. "It will be such fun!"

Nabiki barely narrowed her eyes and gave Haabu a quick cold smile, just to let him know that he had recovered nicely. With the culture clash safely out of the way, she nibbled another bite of the excellent prawn. The mint gave it a wonderful overtone. It was not something she would want to eat everyday, it would grow tiresome rather quickly, but for an occasional event such as this, charcoaled prawns with mint were perfect. They offset the soup quite nicely.

Haabu's suddenly seemed awed by something off on Nabiki's right. She turned head, only to see Akane eating like a true Saotome, that is to say, with both hands and blurring chopsticks. The Joketsuzoku, Nabiki noticed, had served Akane a sizeable bowl of rice in addition to the soup and roasted prawns.

"She eats like one of my men," Haabu muttered.

Nabiki looked down at her own food to hide her smirk. I wonder what the hell happened to Akane? Nabiki asked herself. Maybe Ranma is rubbing off on her. Nabiki glanced back towards her sister, only to discover that Ranma was not eating at all. He was slipping his food into Akane's reach.

"She'll have to take a break so we can rearrange her obi if she keeps eating like that," Nabiki muttered under her breath.

"It isn't her fault, actually," Haabu whispered to Nabiki.

Nabiki felt her eyes go wide with shock as she stared at Haabu. He responded by pointing to his ears and giving her a wan smile.

"Genetics," Haabu whispered. "I have the devil's own time getting any sleep here."

"I can just imagine," Nabiki said in a voice so faint that she knew anyone trying to listen to her would have needed to watch her lips in order to understand her. "What happened to my sister?"

"She touched a ki-staff," Haabu said. "It drained quite a bit of her ki before she forced her hand open and stopped touching it."

"A ki staff?" Nabiki asked in the same quiet voice.

Haabu explained while he and Nabiki polished off their first course.

"So you use it as a kind of storage battery, then?" Nabiki asked as the Joketsuzoku men began serving the second course. This time it was clay pot chicken with a mixture of rice and vegetables Nabiki had never seen before. The aroma of it made her feel as though she were starving, even though she had already eaten the first course of the meal. Akane tore into her serving as though she had been starving for weeks.

"Yes," Haabu said, nodding his head. "Such a staff is an important tool for any ki adept, but it is especially useful to a young dragon."

"This all has something to do with Jusenkyou, doesn't it?" Nabiki asked.

Haabu took a deep breath then sighed.

"Yes, and no," Haabu said. "What do you know of Jusenkyou?"

"Well, for a long time we just thought it was a collection of cursed springs," Nabiki said, "but that never really made sense, because it was also called a training ground. I finally surmised that Jusenkyou was indeed a training ground, but no one really knows how to use it properly anymore."

"And so you've been speculating on the original intent of Jusenkyou," Haabu said.

"Yes," Nabiki said. "I have tentatively concluded that its original intent was to train exceptional warriors in the use of their ki."

"Very astute," Haabu said.

"This must mean, then, that Jusenkyou is not a wholly natural formation. At least part of its nature arises from the designs of someone," Nabiki said.

"Quite so," Haabu said with a nod. "Jusenkyou was a gift to our peoples from the first of the Cold Dragons."

"A gift?" Nabiki asked. "He made a gift of cursed springs?"

"The springs were dry in those days," Haabu answered with a grim smile. "He made them to flow again."

"He made them to flow again?" Nabiki asked. "How did he do that?"

"He died, or at least, 'became dead to this world' as the ancient scrolls claim. According to those old writings, the first of the Cold Dragons climbed up onto the Kenseizan and filled its upper caves with ice. It is the melt water from that ice which feeds the springs through Jusendou. Musk legends say that each succeeding Cold Dragon has also ended their days on the heights of Kenseizan, thus assuring that Jusenkyou will never again run dry."

"Was the mountain called Kenseizan in those days?" Nabiki asked.

"No, it was just another mountain then," Haabu said. "The name of the mountain helped you solve the puzzle of Jusenkyou, did it not?"

"Yes, but only after Ranma became a dragon," Nabiki said.

"As with many of the great gifts mankind has been granted, Jusenkyou quickly proved both a blessing and a curse," Haabu said.

"Did the Cold Dragons rule your county in the past, Prince Haabu?" Nabiki asked.

Haabu did not answer right away. He seemed to be searching for words.

"Any one of them could have claimed such leadership for himself, but none of them ever did," Haabu said at last. "They had other concerns and left the governance of our country up to us."

"Why not?" Nabiki asked sounding surprised.

"That is a good question, but the answer is a long and rambling tale," Haabu said. "Such tales are best told while sitting by a fire with a fresh cup of tea in hand, don't you think?"

"I will expect to hear it right after dessert, then," Nabiki said in softly imperious tones. Haabu was clearly amused by her antic.

"Then I shall not fail to relate it to one and all, M'lady," Haabu said with a cold smile. "May I have the liberty of asking the Lady Tendo a question?"

"You may ask," Nabiki replied, making sure that her tone offered no guarantee of an answer.

"What art does the lady practice?" Haabu asked.

Nabiki allowed her cold smile to become shark-like as she answered, "Anything Goes Capitalism. I am founding my own school."

Haabu laughed. His laughter had a chilling edge to it, as though someone might die at any second. Nabiki decided she liked hearing him laugh. There was little of Ranma's studied obliviousness about Haabu. Haabu seemed to be as constantly focused as Ranma was only during a fight. It was refreshing to find such a trait in a man.

"How refreshingly honest!" Haabu exclaimed. "I long ago tired of the phony socialism practiced in the Middle Kingdom. Do you plan to conquer the entire world?"

"Only the important parts of it," Nabiki answered, being careful not to blink. The light of the sinking sun entangled itself in Haabu's platinum locks, becoming a whirling dance of red and gold scintillations. Nabiki felt her heart race.

"Such a quest sounds like it might be great fun," Haabu said, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

"It is," Nabiki said, giving him her iciest smile, the one she used on someone who had tried to get the best of her and failed.

"How might one apply to become an ally in this great endeavor?" Haabu asked. "Are you accepting students?"

"If the supplicant is observant enough and has the right attitude," Nabiki answered coldly.

"Well, I am fairly observant. For instance, I notice that you have met a man named Tetsugo Ichiro, Lady Tendo," Haabu said, his voice as cold as midnight in Antarctica.

Inside, Nabiki quaked with the heat and energy of an active volcano. Outside, she remained as cool and quiescent as the upper reaches of snow-capped Fuji. She did not know how she achieved this feat, only that everything now depended upon her self-control and she would be damned unto hell before she would let it slip.

"Oh, really?" Nabiki asked. "How well do you know him?"

"As well as any mortal may, I think," Haabu said with a small smile, as though thinking of gentler days long gone. "I was apprenticed to him for a little while."

"Long enough to learn sword making?" Nabiki asked.

"I suppose that there is every reason for a person to expect me to have studied sword making, but that was not the thrust of what he taught me," Haabu said as he scratched at the back of his neck. "I learned only enough of that to know what I might reasonably expect of my smiths."

"What did he teach you then?" Nabiki asked.

"He taught me how to fashion jewelry," Haabu answered as his eyes seemed to catch fire. "You are wearing my masterpiece. It disappeared before I could set its stones."

Nabiki's blood roared in her ears, but she met Haabu's crimson gaze head on as she extended her right arm toward him.

"Then you would know how this thing is supposed to come off, right?" Nabiki asked, careful to keep her voice as cold and calm as a mountain lake.

Haabu was now looking at Nabiki in a way that said; "Mine!" and Nabiki found she liked having him look at her that way. She was staring at Haabu the same way. He reached out and touched the bracelet. It fell away from Nabiki's wrist and into his palm. Nabiki lowered her arm. Haabu tore his gaze away from Nabiki's eyes as he held his long-lost masterpiece up close and examined it. He reached into his pocket and extracted three jade cabochons. Their size and quality nearly took Nabiki's breath away. In just seconds, without the use of any tools that Nabiki could see, Haabu set the three cabochons into their fittings on the bracelet.

"This bracelet and Tetsugo-sama disappeared while I was away shaping these stones," Haabu explained as he worked on the bracelet. Once finished, he looked up at Nabiki. By instinct, Nabiki presented her bare wrist to him.

"The old man left me a note explaining that the bracelet would return to me attached to the single most potent weapon a man such as myself could ever hope to have," Haabu whispered as he closed the bracelet around Nabiki's wrist.

"Weapon?" Nabiki asked suppressing an inward shiver of delight. "I _like_ that."

"I knew you would, Princess," Haabu whispered.

Nabiki faintly heard a gasp of frustration. It sounded very like Akane, but something at the back of her mind told her it was Kiima who was fuming. Nabiki instantly decided that she would have to try and make peace with the Hououzanjin. It would not do to have the good Captain plotting against her at this point in the game. Nabiki was not even sure of what the game was just yet, but it promised an exciting future already.

"I don't know whether to be happy for 'em, or to be scared spit-less," Ranma said in too loud of a whisper. He grunted as Akane applied her elbow to his ribs. Tofu chuckled.

Nabiki turned her head to face her brother-in-law to be and said, "Be afraid, Ranma dear. Be very afraid."

Haabu chortled. Ranma stared for a moment, then guffawed.

"I will be," Ranma said as he wiped at one eye. "I will be."

"No you won't," Nabiki whispered so softly that only Haabu heard her, "but you should."

"Ah, the piece de resistance!" Haabu exclaimed as two Joketsuzoku men entered the pavilion bearing a heavy platter with a domed cover. "Roast peacock stuffed with lobster and asparagus."

Haabu and guests happily dug in.

Roast peacock, Nabiki noted with delighted interest, tasted nothing like chicken. Unsurprisingly, the Joketsuzoku were serving a rich red wine with the repast. Life is starting to get good, she thought, but I have got to find out everything that is going on as fast as I can. I think I'll start with Kiima.

Kiima watched with a heavy heart as the sun sank and the roast peacock was reduced to a pile of bare bones. Most of the main course was consumed in relative silence, aside from loud and heartfelt praises for the chef. She could not help but feel that she had somehow let her people down. To be sure, those who chose to follow her and Haabu would long be held in his favor, but their political position would be far more secure if she could have found a way to wed the heir of the Musk Dynasty. Clearly, that was no longer possible. Kiima found herself wishing that she had some means of conferring with Lord Chervil. The wily old bird obviously had not known of Haabu's apprenticeship to this mysterious Tetsugo Ichiro. Chervil would have otherwise warned Kiima about the bracelet Haabu had made and the prophecy associated with it.

Kiima studied Nabiki as carefully as she could without being obtrusive, but learned nothing that revealed anything the least bit dangerous about the girl. Well, Kiima conceded to herself, that was part of the problem. Nabiki was nearly the same age as Prince Haabu, while Kiima was five or six years older than the Musk Prince. Haabu would naturally be more comfortable in Nabiki's company. Making matters worse was the fact that Nabiki seemed genuinely attracted to Haabu. That was the real puzzler for Kiima. Most women seemed to find Haabu cold and remote, if not hostile. The Tendo girl seemed to actually like those qualities in the young "Lizard Lord" as he was sometimes referred to by Kiima's people. Having worked with the young man for the better part of a month, Kiima now knew that the epithet was misapplied to Haabu. His was a fiery soul that purposely sheathed itself in ice. There was nothing at all lizard-like about the prince. He could, however, become very draconian. It was an aspect of the prince that always lurked just beneath the surface.

All through her reverie, Kiima had been picking at her dessert. It was a surprisingly simple dish when compared with the rest of the meal, being a baked apple stuffed with honey- dipped raisins and seasoned with freshly ground cinnamon. Where the chef had found the apples was a mystery to Kiima. They would have been unbearably tart as table fruit and their skins were remarkably thin and fragile. The sweetness of the honey and raisins along with the butter and cinnamon moderated their tartness so that it puckered the mouth to just the right degree. As much as she was enjoying the taste, Kiima's stomach insisted she stop eating. She put the dish aside, almost setting it down on someone's foot.

"I thought perhaps you might like a chance to freshen up before coffee," said a quiet feminine voice from above.

Kiima looked up to find herself staring none other than Nabiki Tendo in the eye. The Ice Queen was offering Kiima a hand up.

"Thank you," Kiima said as she took Nabiki's proffered hand. "I haven't seen anything remotely like real plumbing for almost a month."

"I thought as much," Nabiki said with a grin. "Primitive plumbing is why I gave up camping ages ago."

Kiima walked alongside Nabiki wondering what to say next. It was fairly obvious that the girl was using the plumbing of Ono-ke as an excuse for the two of them to talk. Kiima decided that an open approach would probably work best.

"You seem to find Prince Haabu attractive, Tendo-san," Kiima said.

Nabiki's smile was genuine, but just as icy as it had been all evening.

"Yes, I do," Nabiki said. "As do you, I gather."

Kiima tried not to wince visibly, but thought she had probably failed. Her cursed form tended to make her suffer from excessive emotions, making it difficult for Kiima to hide her feelings from others on occasion.

"True, but you should know that my concerns go well beyond my personal interests," Kiima said.

Nabiki nodded her head as she spoke. "I suspected as much. I gather then that the Hououzanjin need a firm political connection to the Musk Dynasty."

Kiima briefly considered telling Nabiki everything. After all, the girl might be young, but it was obvious that she had a flair for intrigue and was quick to gather intelligence. It would be only a matter of time before Nabiki learned everything Kiima could tell her, but for Kiima to tell what she knew without permission would make her seem unreliable to Haabu. Kiima decided to let Nabiki know that she had made a good guess, but to tell the girl no more than that. Kiima was suddenly happy to be a soldier. It allowed her to hide behind her duty. She gave Nabiki an admiring grin as she said, "I am not at liberty to discuss very much. I am, as you may know, a soldier in Prince Haabu's service."

"I can appreciate that," Nabiki said as she opened the front door of Ono-ke for Kiima, "but I cannot help but wonder how much the Musk need the Hououzanjin."

Kiima removed her geta before entering the house. She waited for Nabiki to step inside and close the front door before saying anything more.

"With all due respect, Tendo-san," Kiima said with a heartfelt smile, "you are asking the wrong question."

"Oh, how so?" Nabiki asked.

"Were I in your place, Tendo-san, I would be asking myself how badly I needed the Hououzanjin."

Kiima was pleased to see that this news surprised and confused Nabiki, but she was careful not to let her glee ride up into her face as she added, "Surely you do realize that Prince Haabu has come here to offer his fealty to your sister's betrothed, Tendo-san."

Nabiki's response surprised and confused Kiima.

"Ah, thank you for pointing this out to me, Kiima," Nabiki said as her Ice Queen persona fell completely back into place, "I should have deduced that for myself, given what Prince Haabu told us about the Cold Dragons."

Kiima managed to smile and give Nabiki a polite nod, not really trusting herself to speak while in her cursed form. Kiima's self-confidence always seemed to waver rather badly while in her cursed form. It made Kiima's cursed-self tend toward volatility, something she could ill afford on this mission. At least, Kiima noted to herself with pleasure, I haven't had to listen to my cursed soul bitch tonight. She hasn't spoken to me in almost a month.

Nabiki led Kiima down the hall a little way, pausing by a closed door.

"The toilet is in here," Nabiki said, smiling.

"Thank you, Tendo-san," Kiima said, meaning it.

On their way back out, Kiima decided that it would hurt nothing to establish a rapport with Nabiki. If Haabu was destined to marry the girl, there would be little Kiima could do to prevent it, thus it only made sense for her and her people to have Nabiki look upon them favorably. On the other hand, if Haabu continued his line's practice of taking more than one woman to wife, then it made even more sense for her to nurture an amicable relationship with Nabiki. Kiima might become co-wife to Nabiki. Should Haabu not marry the Tendo girl at all, Nabiki would still remain an influential retainer of Ranma Saotome, the Cold Dragon. From every angle Kiima looked at the situation, it made sense to be nice to Nabiki Tendo.

"If I may be so bold, Tendo-san?" Kiima asked.

"Please," Nabiki said, "I would be happy to hear what you have to say."

"If you wish to spend any time at all with Lord Haabu, spend as much time with him as you can this night," Kiima said.

"Oh, really?" Nabiki asked, seemingly delighted by such a prospect.

"Indeed," Kiima replied soberly. "His time is not really his own at the moment. I am reasonably sure that he will spend as much of tomorrow as he can with Saotome-dono."

"Oh, well, that figures!" Nabiki said with a cold smile. "Boys will always be boys."

Kiima found herself smiling at this, even though her cursed form felt a stab of rage fueled by jealousy.

"Indeed, they seem the same everywhere I've been," Kiima said with a knowing grin. "For all of their incessant ogling of us, they'd leave a barge full of naked women for a good fight."

"Let's just hope they go somewhere else to spar tomorrow," Nabiki said with a shudder. "I hate to think what will happen to this fine old house if they spar here."

"I did hint as much to Prince Haabu earlier this afternoon, Tendo-san," Kiima said as they reached the front door, "but you might reiterate that suggestion if you get the chance this evening."

"Thank you, Kiima. I will do that," Nabiki said as she turned and offered Kiima her hand. "Friends?"

"And allies, Tendo-san," Kiima said as she gripped Nabiki's slender forearm. Kiima only just barely remembered to moderate her cursed form's grip.

"Perhaps you could join me in a bath tomorrow," Nabiki said. "Around ten?"

"Thank you, Tendo-san," Kiima said. "I greatly appreciate the offer."

"Think nothing of it," Nabiki said. "It will give me a chance to see the real you."

This brought Kiima up short.

"I'm sorry. I suppose you must find my appearance rather disconcerting," Kiima said, sincerely meaning it.

"No ... well, only for about the first five minutes or so," Nabiki said with a smile. "Life around Ranma has hardened me to the unusual."

"Sounds like you've seen some interesting times," Kiima said.

"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow," Nabiki said, then the two of them returned to the temporary pavilion and the inherent strains of a formal occasion.

Haabu sat down on his cushion and sipped his coffee as he waited for his guests to settle back in. The coffee surprised him. He did not actually care for coffee very much and was sipping at it to be polite to his guests, but this particular brew tasted good to him for some reason. I wonder what is different about this, Haabu silently asked himself. He got another shock when another internal voice answered.

(You might ask the Elder Tendo that question.)

(Oh, no! Not this again! Why do you choose times like this to speak up? Can you not see that I have enough on my hands as it is?)

(It is at times like this you need me the most, Haabu darling.)

(Don't call me that!)

(Why not? If one is to like anyone, she must start by liking herself. Is this not true?)

(I am not a her and you are nothing to do with me! You are that ... that damned curse!)

(You still do not understand, do you? Or, perhaps, you are simply refusing to see. We are one and the same person.)

(I am _not_ a female! I am a man among men!)

(And I am not a curse! The girl who drowned in the spring was a petite redhead. You and I, stupid darling, are statuesque platinum blondes. Besides, I am rather fond of you, Darling. You are me after all.)

(Why have you chosen now of all times to harass me?)

(As usual, I am here to help you avoid making a serious mistake.)

(A mistake? What kind of mistake? Concerning what?)

(Why our Weapon, Darling, what else?)


(There, you see? I was certain you would not know what to do about her. She is beautiful, is she not? With all those icy sharp edges and that quick wit of hers?)

(Oh, yes. I must admit, I am quite taken with her.)

(Then know this, Haabu-darling, deep running fires of passion run beneath that cold metallic surface she shows the world. You must see to it that you have some private time with her before we leave.)

(And what would that accomplish? I have no time for dalliances! We have our duties to fulfill.)

(Humph! She is our Weapon! If we are to claim her for our own, we must at least let her know how we feel before we leave her behind. She must know that we will come back for her.)

(Far easier said than done, Curse.)

(What is this that runs through our veins, Haabu? Is it the blood of dragons or the thin piss of mice?)

Haabu's aura flared briefly, quite without his notice.

(Ye know full well that of which we are made!)

(Then I beseech thee! Act as one worthy of thy heritage, Haabu! Declare thyself to this woman. What harm may she do us?)

(She ... she could crush me.)

(You would expect less from a weapon worthy of a dragon?)

(No, I would not.)

(Then we are meet with the true face of fear, Draconian! Who shall be the master? Fear or dragon-spawn?)

(Oh, what is this power a woman so easily holds over me?)

(That which you willingly give, Haabu-darling.)

(Then she shall own us entirely.)

(Only if you summon the courage to act now, Haabu. She might well declare herself for our Cousin if you delay.)

(I ... surely ... not ... him.)

(Would you blame her?)

(No! In truth, I could not. Such would be a wise choice for her to make. I will make time for her this very night.)

"May I freshen your coffee for you, Prince Haabu?" Nabiki asked, breaking Haabu out of his reverie. The sun was well down on the horizon now. The sky directly overhead was dark with the brightest of its stars beginning to twinkle. The western horizon was reduced to what seemed a thin bed of glowing coals. Everyone was seated in the pavilion, looking expectantly in Haabu's direction. Haabu was vaguely aware that the men of his retinue were busy lighting lanterns and setting them out. Someone, Haabu suspected it was probably the Elder Tendo, had distributed quilts to everyone but himself and Ranma.

"Yes, please," Haabu responded to Nabiki, giving her a polite little bow of thanks as he set down his cup. Nabiki carefully filled it to the brim with hot coffee from a thermos. Haabu found the mingling of the coffee with Nabiki's perfume to be delightfully overpowering.

Haabu closed his eyes as he sipped at the hot coffee. He found Nabiki looking at him when he reopened them. Her face was composed as though cast in ice, but her eyes shown brightly in the glittering starlight cast through the cold descent of night. I shall enjoy watching that cold demeanor of yours shatter, my sweet, Haabu thought to himself, then cleared his throat so that he could speak.

"I will tell you now a story so old and fragmented that it is considered to be nothing more than legend by most, and little wonder, for it is a strange story, and few know the secrets guarded by the Musk. For that is how the Musk came to be. We were born and bred to become the defenders of ancient secrets. And we have been successful. Very few people know of us, and not even we Musk are fully knowledgeable of that we are sworn to keep secret. This is as it must be. On the face of it, we are a fierce dynasty whose antecedents appear to be lost in the mists of time, but in truth we began as company of elite soldiers. Many years passed before we became a society of our own."

Haabu paused to sip at his coffee and assess his audience. It was a trick he had learned by watching a beggar tell stories. The decrepit old man would pause once in a while when telling his tales. If no one dropped a coin in his bowl, he remained silent. The old man's bowl seldom stayed empty. Tonight, Haabu could tell that he had set his hook. Even the Joketsuzoku males had settled down in the fringes of the dark and were waiting for him to continue, even though Haabu knew that they had heard the Joketsu version of this story told many times. Satisfied that all was going well, he continued.

"There are many stories told about my people. Nearly all of them have a grain of truth to them, yet none of them are entirely accurate. One thing that is often said of us is that our origins are not to be found in the Middle Kingdom. This is certainly true, even though there are many who disbelieve it." Haabu paused to finger his forelock. "Here, as you can see for yourself, is at least a partial proof of it."

Haabu smiled coldly at the whispers and the shifting about on cushions his statement caused.

"Originally, we were a seafaring people, living on islands and traveling about the earth in slender ships that could dance in step with the winds."

Haabu paused to let the murmurs die down.

"Even harder for many to believe, we were originally ruled by a Queen. Notice, if you will, that the ruler of the Musk Dynasty, save for my late father, has always been referred to as a Prince. Only my late father ever claimed the title of King."

Haabu smiled at the faint grunts of approval he heard coming from the Joketsuzoku men. Haabu's father had done much to earn opprobrium, even though he had never been as evil as many claimed him to be. Foolish? Yes, the old man had behaved foolishly, especially in his latter days. Arrogant? It goes without saying. Evil? No, not really. Haabu's father had been motivated by the need for a just rule over his country, but there were things the old man either could not see, or simply refused to see. Haabu was determined not to repeat his father's mistakes.

"It cannot be said with any accuracy how many lands our ancestors visited. Many of those records were lost and many of our explorers never returned home. But it can be said with little concern about inaccuracy that we were a restless and inquisitive people. The first of our great explorations lives on to this very day in the form of a legend, even though it is a tale much twisted out of shape by the political needs of the cultures that succeeded ours."

Haabu was not the least bit surprised when Tofu Ono asked, "Was your queen named Atalanta?"

What did surprise Haabu was Ranma's reaction to the question. Ranma visibly started, and it seemed to Haabu that his Cousin's hair stood on end. I must remember to ask him about this later, Haabu thought silently to himself before answering Tofu's query.

"Yes, she was. In fact, all our queens were named Atalanta. The name is sacred, taken after the name of the eldest daughter of the Great Goddess Hela, or "Hera" as she is called in the Far West. Each of our Queens assumed that name upon her election to office."

Haabu found watching Tofu's face amusing. He could almost see the gears turning in the older man's head. He is widely read, Haabu thought. The good Doctor is not nearly so insular as are most of the Wa. Fate has dealt my Cousin a winning hand.

"A democracy?" Akane asked sounding surprised.

"No, not really," Haabu answered with a rather bitter smile. "The Queen was always chosen from among the College of Priestesses. She served for life, and, even though she had many counselors, her word was the law. Atalantean rule was absolute until she died, or abdicated."

"And this College of Priestesses?" Akane asked.

"Recruited from the population at large," Haabu answered. "The elders kept watch over the girls of every class, searching for those that might be touched by the Goddess."

"Oh, no!" Ranma exclaimed. "Let me guess. Red hair, right?"

"Among other things, Cousin, yes," Haabu answered. "Red hair does appear to have been one of the more important signs of Hera's favor."

Ranma said nothing more, but he cocked his head as though aggravated by something someone said. Haabu thought about this for a moment, then gave his cousin a cold smile as he said, "Another sign was that of hearing a voice no one else could hear, Cousin."

Ranma shuddered. At least now I know that I am not alone, Haabu thought. My Cousin's curse nags him as well.

"Cretan Minoa!" Tofu exclaimed.

"I beg your pardon, Isha?" Haabu asked.

"Your people originated from Isle of Crete in the Mediterranean, correct?"

"A good guess, Isha, but no, not if our records are accurate, and I have little doubt about them," Haabu answered. "Our ultimate origins are not known with certainty, but according to the histories we have, our peoples settled on an island they named Karurisute, in the central Mediterranean Sea, several centuries after the Great Flood."

"You have records that go back that far?" Tofu asked sounding shocked.

"Yes, but with many gaps and obscurities," Haabu answered.

"Such records are priceless!" Tofu exclaimed.

"And very, very dangerous," Haabu said, allowing his hard voice to further cool the already chilly evening. "Allow me to explain."

"Of course!" Tofu said, "Please forgive my intrusion."

"Not at all, Isha," Haabu said. "Very few of the people I have met are as well read as you are and there is much that modern archeologists have gotten wrong, not that such errors are necessarily their fault. Our ancestors went well out of their way to obliterate certain kinds of knowledge."

Haabu paused to take a deep drink of coffee. The dark liquid was warm with a pleasing bitterness that he found bracing. Nabiki silently raised the thermos. Haabu nodded his head, then set the cup down between them. He watched in silence as Nabiki filled his cup, suddenly realizing that he should feel very flattered. This woman was not in the habit of serving anyone. Haabu took up his cup and gave Nabiki a thankful glance over its rim before taking another sip. The anticipation of his audience was so intense as to be palpable.

"The first Queen Atalanta, according to the ancient records, was the daughter of Hera by Prince Girugameshi, who later became a the founding Monarch of another nation. After the Great Flood, Atalanta hired a ship built and crewed it with the bravest women and strongest men she could find, setting out in search of a new land for her people."

Haabu nodded at Tofu's startled grunt, and sipped at his coffee again before continuing.

"After many trials and adventures, they at last came upon the island they named Karurisute. It was so named because it was a great mountain rising up from the sea and being encircled by several rings of islands and reefs. Reaching the shores of Karurisute was no mean feat, for there were many shoals and treacherous currents that ran strong and changed without warning.

But their struggles proved more than worthwhile, for Karurisute was a blessed place. The soils along its lower slopes were fertile beyond belief and the steeper slopes were heavily forested with stands of pine and cedar, with mighty oaks shading the lower slopes. The waters around Karurisute were a curious mix of warm and cold. There were vast reefs laden with life where the waters were warm while huge fish swam in the colder, much deeper waters.

Melting snow that clung to the upper reaches of Karurisute the whole year round constantly watered the land with tumbling streams and beautiful cascades. Karurisute was blessed with many small lakes and ponds of every size and depth. Not all of the fresh water was cold, as one would expect from snow-fed streams. Some of the streams were quite hot and laden with mineral salts, perfect for healthy bathing.

As blessed as Karurisute was, settling the island and those that surrounded it was not accomplished without great struggle, and our ancestors suffered more than a few heartbreaking setbacks. The soils of Karurisute did not take kindly to mismanagement. The records contain an enormous body of law concerning how plowing was to be done and when. There were strict rules governing flocks and herds. For instance, no living goat was allowed on Karurisute. They were always slain aboard ship, or on barges designated for the purpose, and only their meat was ever brought ashore."

"Few cultures in the Mediterranean ever exhibited such discipline, Haabu," Tofu said.

"Indeed, but our ancestors did more than limit the size of the flocks they husbanded and the crops they reared. They also found the means to limit their own numbers, thus their population grew no faster than they could prudently support. Or so the records say. The exact method employed to this end is complex and seems to have involved what would pass for magic, or perhaps some form of herbal medicine. The records are fragmented on this subject."

"There was a slow growing plant, said to be found only in Libya, from which an effective contraceptive could be made," Tofu said. "According to the Mycenaean and Greek records that have been found, this plant was harvested into extirpation before the time of Alexander. The loss of this plant had a dramatic effect on Greek culture and politics."

This created a stir among the Joketsuzoku men.

"I see," Haabu said. "Have you searched for it?"

"Some of my colleagues have, but they found nothing matching its description," Tofu said. "Fortunately, there are modern equivalents."

One of the Joketsuzoku men snorted derisively in the distance. Haabu gave Tofu a wry grin.

"Most of our Elders refuse the adoption of such," Haabu said. "They prefer to rely upon self-discipline, encouraging abstinence and a harsh training regimen for their young ladies in lieu of a medical helpmeet in this matter."

Ranma grunted as Akane surreptitiously applied her elbow to his ribs.

"Of course," Haabu added with a nasty grin, "they make exceptions in the case of an outsider who is brave enough, or, perhaps, foolish enough to defeat one of their number. That is, for all practical intents and purposes, a license to stand at stud."

Ranma grunted again, rather more loudly this time. Nabiki's icy demeanor did not crack, but her eyes watered and her cheeks took on a rosy glow. Kasumi limited herself to a stifled titter. In the background, the Joketsuzoku men shifted about uncomfortably.

"Sounds as though they still keep a close eye on the gene pool," Tofu said with a knowing grin.

"Indeed, they do, Isha," Haabu said with a respectful nod of his head. "It is a habit formed long ago. The Atalantean line ruled wisely for the better part of a millennium, even to the point of ordering the abandonment of Karurisute well before the need became obvious to the masses."

"Hence there have been no bodies found on what is left of Thera, correct?" Tofu asked.

"According to the records we have, Isha," Haabu said in a somber voice, "the westerners should eventually find several thousand bodies. Many of the aged refused to leave, being too frail for shipboard life. There were also some who were desperately ill and a few who were insane. They were reluctantly left behind. Then there were a number of habitual criminals who were summarily executed prior to the departure of the last fleet. No one wanted them preying upon the Elders who chose to die with Karurisute. The criminals were buried by simply pulling down the prison walls upon their lifeless bodies. Doubtlessly, there will be some horror-stricken commentary about it once those remains are found."

"I'm glad I didn't get the duty," Ranma said with a catch in his voice. He closed his eyes and shuddered.

"As am I, Cousin," Haabu said, for he too understood the nature of taking life and knew down to his very bones that no one could carry out such orders and walk away a whole man. He also understood what Ranma understood. Such orders could not be ignored. He, like Ranma, would have carried them out, no matter what the personal cost.

"Running a triage is always an unhappy business," Tofu said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Were there no graveyards on the island?"

"Those may never be found," Haabu said, pausing to wipe at his forehead. "I cannot say with certainty. Most of the tombs were dug into the upper slopes of the eastern forests, according to the records we have."

"And all of the upper slopes are gone," Tofu said.

"Judging from the pictures I have seen, that is so," Haabu said. "Modern maps show nothing of the islands in the outer rings, so one must assume they sank as well, or were otherwise obliterated."

In Japan, no one doubts the terrific power of a volcano, or the grinding devastation a tsunami might inflict upon one's home shores. The ensuing silence was profound.

Haabu finished off his coffee. Nabiki offered him more. He nodded his head as he started to set down his cup, but Nabiki took it from his hand, caressing his trembling hand with the calm warmth of her fingers as she did so. No one else seemed to notice her gesture, which impressed Haabu all the more. Nabiki's sense of timing was a thing to be treasured.

"I will learn to love you rather quickly, I should think," Haabu half-whispered, half-mouthed in total silence. Nabiki answered him with a faint twitch of her lips and a nod.

"Later, my Prince," Nabiki breathed.

(Nicely done, Draconian! I am impressed.)

(Why, thank you, Curse.)

"Our ancestors left the Mediterranean weeping for our colonies. They knew that without Karurisute the heart of our people would be gone, and that the Myceneaens would be quick to invade, rape, pillage and enslave. Yet, few of the colonists agreed to leave with us, falsely believing that Knossos could take the place of Karurisute. The few colonials who elected to come along, only partially replaced those of are ancestors who decided to settle on Crete or some other island.

Atalanta ordered the fleets westward, and so they proceeded, passing through the place known then as Hera's Slot, and out into the rumbling blue we now call the Atlantic. This, the second of our great migrations, was rife with horror and struggle. Our ancestors found themselves constantly at war with the sea, and often fighting with local tribes just to find food, or to establish the peace we needed to repair our ships. Several difficult years passed until the mouth of the mighty Yangtze was found, near the place we now call Shanghai. Atalanta joyfully ordered the fleets up the river, and away from the tumbling seas.

Finally, after several months of easy travel, the fleets reached a place where the ships could not be ported. Atalanta set an oar upon her shoulder and said, "Follow me!" Then she headed further inland, following the mighty Yangtze. The farther they went along the river, the smaller the stream, and the higher the land became. Atalanta marched on, until at last at the edge of an endless sea of grass, she met a mounted horseman.

With his cold gaze fixed upon the lovely Atalanta, the tall man dismounted. Following a respectful bow he asked, "What is that you carry on your shoulder, M'Lady? Never have I seen the like of it before."

Atalanta gave a mighty shout, and then shoved the handle of her oaken oar deep into the fertile soil.

"Here!" Atalanta cried. "Here we shall stay! At long last!"

Our ancestors were overjoyed, and quickly set about to make camp, but the tall horseman crossed his arms and glared at Atalanta.

"Oh, here you will stay! And will you not even ask me the price of my grass?" the horseman asked. "Perhaps you would like to own me as well!"

"If that is how you would have it!" Atalanta replied, and thus the battle between Queen Atalanta and the first of the Cold Dragons was joined.

"Of course," Haabu said with a wicked grin, "It all ended in matrimony."

"Oh, _that_ figures!" Ranma exclaimed.

Even Prince Haabu, had to smile at this interruption. He ignored the overarching wave of chuckles his audience gave Ranma as he continued with his story.

"At first things went very well for our ancestors in their new found land, but nothing lasts forever. As is ever the case, peace was the first victim of the times.

Some claim that our ancestors brought these woes upon themselves. For, they say, that many of our ancestors were evil and became too greedy for wealth and power. It must be admitted that to some degree, there is truth in these charges. No society is ever entirely free of such vices.

Others claim that our ancestors were punished because the gods became jealous of them. They say that our ancestors had made discoveries and mastered powers that only gods should wield. It is also said, by these selfsame critics, that our ancestors destroyed Karurisute by misusing these powers. To a degree, these charges also contain more than a little truth."

Haabu paused and looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Tell me, Ono-Isha, how many pictures of the Atalanteans have you seen wherein they bore arms?" Haabu asked Doctor Tofu.

Tofu opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself looking embarrassed for a moment. After a brief pause, he did finally speak.

"I suppose referring to these people as "Minoans" is something of a slander, by your lights, isn't it?" Tofu asked.

"It is an ancient one, Isha, first spread by the Mycenaean louts who took over in our absence," Haabu said. "We must overlook it as an honest mistake on the part of modern westerners."

"Well, of the pictures I have seen," Tofu said, "only one depicts any number of Atalantean men armed, but only with spears. Those might well have been fishing spears or harpoons."

"So, our ancestors lived in and dominated a region surrounded by Lydians, Cimmerians, Hittites and Myceneaens, but are seldom shown bearing arms or engaged in warfare. How can this be?"

"Well," Tofu said, sounding unsure of himself, "a modern archeologist could think of several possibilities, but I can assure you, even the majority of them are puzzled by this feature of Atalantean culture. Particularly by the fact that they held the Myceneaens at bay for so long."

"How many Atalantean cities have been found that were fortified?" Haabu asked.

"None," Tofu answered with a smile. "That is another thing which puzzles us today."

"These cities appeared to have been quite rich, did they not?" Haabu asked.

"Indeed they were, Prince Haabu," Tofu answered. "The city being excavated on Thera might well have rivaled Tokyo for comfort."

"Then I shall give you at least a partial answer to your puzzle, Isha," Haabu said with a grim smile. The raising his voice, Haabu called out, "Sou Pa!"

Out of the shadows lumbered a veritable mountain of Joketsuzoku man. He was not quite as tall as Prince Haabu, but his girth and muscular mass was more than a match for the likes of Genma Saotome. In his massive hands he bore two heavy bonbori. Their handles were made of cast iron shafts nearly two inches thick, with massive bronze heads the size of basketballs. Woe betide any who underestimate this gentle giant, Haabu thought to himself.

"Sou Pa," Haabu announced, "is a very talented man. Not only is he a renowned blacksmith, who studied under the venerable Tetsugo Ichiro, he is also our celebrated chef. Take a bow, Sou Pa."

"Oh, my!" an overjoyed Kasumi exclaimed. "An iron chef! Mint must have been tonight's theme!"

The denizens of Ono-ke applauded uproariously, while the blushing Sou Pa returned their heartfelt approbations with abashed bows.

After the applause died down, Haabu pointed at the bonbori and asked, "Have you grown attached to these, Sou Pa?"

"No, Prince Haabu," Sou Pa replied. "I only finished making them just before we left on our journey here."

"Then you would sell them to me for a fair price?" Haabu asked.

"You may have them if you want them, Prince Haabu," Sou Pa answered.

"I shall remember your generosity, Sou Pa," Haabu said. "Please hold them out well away from yourself so that everyone may see them."

Sou Pa held the heavy weapons well out, causing Ranma to grunt in sympathy. They were obviously very heavy. The bronze heads gleamed dully in the lamplight. Haabu's hands did not flash or blur so much as they merely flickered. Pieces of cleanly sheared bonbori rang together as they fell into a pile upon the mats. Sou Pa nearly fell over backwards as the weight of his bonbori was suddenly diminished.

"I just used a variant of an ancient technique known as the Claws of the Leopard Demon," Haabu said. "One of the lesser techniques developed by our ancestors. It was taught to nearly all Atalantean soldiers."

The sound of one hand clapping could be heard as the palm of Tofu's right hand met with his forehead.

"The demons!" Tofu said with a gasp.

"Neko-ken!" Akane and Nabiki exclaimed.

Tofu stared towards Nabiki, Akane and Ranma, his eyes wide and his mouth agape with wonder. Ranma's eyes were wide as well, but with fear.

"Demons, Isha?" Haabu asked. He nodded at Sou Pa who immediately retreated into the shadows.

"Yes! The Minoa...I mean, Atalantean demons!" Tofu stammered. "A gold signet ring was found sometime around 1978. It depicted tall men standing in rank. They have cat-like claws instead of hands and appear to be presenting a priestess or goddess with a sacrifice. They've always been assumed to be depictions of demons."

"Such a ring would have belonged to a general," Haabu said. "The depiction stood for the battalions under her command. One figure for each battalion."

"Demons ain't that far wrong," Ranma said, casting his gaze towards the ground.

"Indeed not, Cousin," Haabu said, turning to gaze at Ranma. He stared at Ranma for a moment before sitting down. "You have been trained in the Neko-ken, Cousin?"

Ranma silently nodded his head in response.

"Who did this to you?" Haabu asked, his tone cold and ominous.

"His father," Kasumi answered. Akane and Nabiki both stiffened on hearing her say it. Ranma took a deep breath and sighed.

"Elder Ko Lon warned me not to underestimate your father," Haabu said. "I see she was not in error. He must be a fearfully resolute man."

"He isn't as bad as you might think," Ranma said, in an unusually soft manner, "just stupid sometimes."

"Well, he made a warrior of you, Cousin," Haabu said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Let us give him credit where it is due."

Ranma gave Haabu a grin as he nodded his head.

"As you can imagine," Haabu said, continuing the story of his people, "even a small army trained in this technique was enough to deter an invasion of the Atalantean realm. Yet our ancestors possessed far more powerful techniques than this one and kept most of what they had discovered secret."

"Such as using one's ki to change forms?" Doctor Tofu asked.

"That, among other, even stranger things, if the records are to be believed," Haabu said.

"Well, that would explain Jusenkyou, but why aren't there more of your people practicing these arts?" Tofu asked. "It seems as though the true purpose of Jusenkyou has been all but forgotten."

"As I was saying, the first casualty of time is almost always peace. So it was for our ancestors after they settled in their new homeland. It took a little while to teach the savage tribes of the region not to trifle with us. After that, differences among our own people became problematical. One of the worst was that a great many of our ancestors became sick from living at such a high elevation. They had, after all, spent most of their lives on the sea. Even many of the newly born children were sickly because of the great height of our new homeland.

There were also problems integrating with the peoples of Atalanta's new husband. Their language and customs were very similar to our own, but there were problematical differences that had to be worked out. In the end, nearly a fourth of our people returned to the sea. They gathered themselves together under the command of Atalanta's eldest daughter, Amatarasa, built ships and disappeared down the Yangtze, never to be heard from again. We have since referred to them as the Fourth Fleet."

"So what is the big secret, Cousin?" Ranma asked. "This sounds like it would make a great story for television or a play or something, but it hardly sounds like the sort of thing that must be kept a secret."

"Only because it may lead to what must be kept secret, Cousin, the Archives of Karurisute," Haabu replied.

"The archives you're charged with guarding, right?" Ranma asked.

"The archives the Musk were formed, bred and trained to protect, Cousin," Haabu answered. "We watch them closely, even though there are those who do not wish it."

"Who would be against it?" Ranma asked. "They are your archives, are they not?"

"We Musk do not own the archives, Cousin. They belong to our people and there are those among our people who think our guardianship is unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous," Haabu said with a bitter smile.

The noise of shuffling feet and clearing of throats could be heard coming from the shadows.

"Of course, it appears that the days of that opposition may well be drawing to a close," Haabu added.

Nabiki cast Ranma a glance of warning. Ranma answered it with a curt, almost imperceptible nod of his head. Akane was already squeezing the life out of Ranma's right arm with both her hands.

"It is getting late, Cousin Haabu," Ranma rumbled in his draconian voice. "Perhaps it would be best that you and I discuss these matters tomorrow, after we have both had some rest."

Haabu glanced up at the sliver of freshly risen moon before answering, "That is an excellent idea, Cousin. I'm sure the Lady Akane and Honored Elder Tendo are in need of rest."

Akane gritted her teeth at this, but let no anger show in her face. Nabiki allowed herself a cold smile of triumph.

"My, how considerate of you, Prince Haabu," Kasumi said. "I'm sure your men could use some rest as well. They have put in an awfully long day of hard work."

"You are correct, of course, Honored Elder," Haabu said, giving Kasumi a short bow. "Thank you for the reminder."

With that, everyone said their good nights and made their way off into the shadows or into Ono-ke, leaving Nabiki alone with Haabu in the pale light of the crescent moon.

"There is a waterfall nearby," Nabiki said as though speaking to no one in particular.

"Yes, I can hear it," Haabu said in a voice that matched the cold night air. "I'm sure it must be lovely in the moonlight."

"Will you escort me?" Nabiki asked.

"I was hoping you would ask," Haabu said as he rose to his feet and offered Nabiki his hand. She took it and rose to her feet. She made no attempt to let go of Haabu's hand, which seemed to please Haabu enormously. They walked slowly together for a few meters, well out of hearing by anyone in the house, when Haabu asked, "Are you certain you wish to walk so far, Lady Tendo? You may well aggravate the injury to your ankle."

"How did you know about my ankle?" Nabiki asked.

"You are favoring it, Lady, and I can hear the tendons strain."

"Then perhaps it would be best if you carried me, my sweet Prince," Nabiki said, giving Haabu a teasing grin. Much to her surprise and delight, Haabu blushed.

"I ... that ... I ... did not mean to suggest...ah..."

Nabiki allowed her grin to turn into an unabashed smile as she said, "You and Ranma are so much alike it's frightening."

Haabu's eyes widened with shock.

"You do realized that it is at this point you are supposed to sweep the lady off her feet, cover her with your warm cape and fly away with her so that the two of you can have a romantic interlude in the moonlight, do you not?"

"Ah ... er ... That is uh, I never ..."

"So sweep me off my feet already," Nabiki said, sounding sweetly peeved. "My ankle hurts and it's my turn to be kidnapped by a mysterious Prince from some far off land."

"I see," Haabu said as he swept Nabiki off her feet. Nabiki gasped as he looked into her eyes. He obviously wanted to kiss her. Instead, he carefully arranged his cape about her. Nabiki was glad of that. The night air had been slowly creeping into her clothing all night and was already too well acquainted with her sensitive skin for her liking.

"Have you ever flown before, Lady Tendo?" Haabu asked.

"Not really. I have never had a reason to fly anywhere," Nabiki said. "Airline tickets are expensive."

"I wouldn't know," Haabu said with a cold smile as he and Nabiki suddenly began to drift upward. "I have never purchased one."

Nabiki gasped, secretly pleased with the excuse to hold Haabu a little tighter. They rocketed away from Ono-ke and over the moonlit treetops until they flew out over the river. Haabu changed their course and followed the riverbed upstream until they reached a high promontory above the falls. It was a nearly perfect place from which to take in the view. They were near enough to hear the water plainly, but not so close as to be bothered by the spray. Much to Nabiki's delight, the moon was at just the right angle to create ghostly rainbows in the rising mists below them. Haabu sat down on the cold limestone of the cliff, still carefully cradling Nabiki in his arms.

"You can set me down in your lap, Haabu-chan," Nabiki breathed into the blushing Prince's ear. "If you don't, your arms will tire."

Looking as though he might get a nosebleed and pass out at any second, Haabu gently lowered Nabiki until she was comfortably sitting in his lap. She snuggled up to him and whispered, "So tell me about Tetsugo Ichiro, and how you came to make this bracelet."

"It is a long, strange story," Haabu said. "I am not sure that even I understand it fully."

"That's all right, Haabu-chan," Nabiki said. "I like strange stories and I don't have a pumpkin to catch."

"A pumpkin?" Haabu asked.

"It was a weak joke," Nabiki said giving Haabu a warm smile. "What about this ancient smith?"

"Well, it all began a few years before my father died," Haabu said. "I was doing quite well in my training, or so I thought, but Father was not entirely happy with my progress. He complained that I needed to develop a more delicate touch."


"Yes, and I found Father's observation most amusing," Haabu said. "As you would have had you known him--or the Musk."

"I've heard a few interesting tales," Nabiki said.

"From your sister, no doubt," Haabu said.

"Yes, but about Tetsugo?"

"Oh, well, when Father introduced him to me and said that he would be one of my teachers, I started to feel a little better, I mean, after all, one would expect the fall of a hammer onto hot iron to be about as delicate a thing as my father could imagine. Then I found out I was to learn the craft of jewelry making."

"Were you angry?" Nabiki asked.

"Very," Haabu answered, "but the rudiments of containing my anger was something I had begun to pick up. I had no idea much more I had left to learn."

And so it went, Nabiki encouraging Haabu to talk about himself and his training, only asking questions when he seemed ready to stop. She listened carefully to every word he said, making certain to remember it all.

Ranma eased himself down into the steaming waters of the furo next to Akane, sighing with relief as he felt the tension begin leaving his body. Akane moaned with pleasure as she snuggled up to him.

"How ya feelin', Akane?" Ranma asked as he put his arm around her.

"I really needed this soak," Akane said. "My neck is so stiff I could scream."

"I know whatcha mean," Ranma said as he rolled his head about on his shoulders. "You did real good out there tonight, Tomboy."

"You didn't do half-bad yourself, Ranma. You sounded like a regular diplomat out there. I didn't know you had it in you."

"It ain't part of my regular style, that's for sure."

Akane giggled. Ranma responded by hugging her a little closer.



"Have you figured out where Ko Lon fits into all this?"

"Nope, but ya can bet she figures into the middle of of it somehow," Ranma said. "It looks to me like the Joketsuzoku, the Musk and the Hououzanjin must have all been one tribe a long time ago."

"That's what I was thinking."

"Haabu'll prob'ly tell me a bunch more about it tomorrow. I figure me and him'll go off somewhere and trade some techniques or somethin'," Ranma said, then, suddenly looking worried he asked, "You won't mind, will ya?"

"Not if you promise to teach it to me later, I won't," Akane said as she began running the palm of her hand across Ranma's muscular chest.

Ranma smiled as he nodded his head and said, "I promise, just as soon as you're up to it, I'll teach it to ya."

"That's fair."

The two of them fell silent, savoring the deep-reaching heat of the bath and the warmth of one another's company for a few moments.

"It looks like they are getting back together," Akane murmured.


"Do you think Safuron's defeat is the cause?"

"Nah, there has to be more to it than that, Akane. Haabu coulda taken Safuron down anytime he wanted to."

"It's probably something the Chinese government is doing, then."

"Let's talk to Nabiki about it tomorrow. Maybe she knows somethin' about what's goin' on over there. She keeps a pretty close eye on the news."

"She stayed out there with Haabu."

Ranma shook his head.

"Poor guy won't ever figger out what hit him."

"Oh, I think he knows already. He just doesn't care."

"What was up with that bracelet, anyway? I didn't know she was wearin' one until Haabu mentioned it."

"That's a really weird deal," Akane said then explained about Tetsugo Ichiro.

"Ya know, I think I must've met him once when I was a kid. I remember seein' a guy like that, but I didn't remember the name. Pop was real respectful to him."

"Nabiki thinks he's a kami of some kind."

Ranma yawned. "I'm sleepy."

"Me too."

It wasn't long before they found themselves snuggling beneath the blankets.





"'Cause you're a better snuggle."

"Oh. Watcher eyes, Akane."

Just as the sky began to turn grey in the east, Haabu gently alighted upon the front steps of Ono-ke. Reluctantly, he set Nabiki upon her feet with her back to the front door. He stared at her; his eyes saying, "Mine!" Nabiki stared right back at him, her face cold and impassive.

Haabu's eyes narrowed into a dangerous squint as he spoke, "I'll be back."

Nabiki treated him to her coldest smile, the one she liked to use on her opponents at the conclusion of difficult negotiations.

"I know."

Haabu seized her in his arms and kissed her. Nabiki did not resist. Instead, she turned up the heat, savoring the incredible power of his arms and the near incandescent heat of the passion that lay just beneath Haabu's cold metallic exterior. After a few moments that seemed to last an eternity and were, nonetheless, all too brief, Nabiki stepped back from the Lord of the Musk. Haabu turned and left, saying nothing. Nabiki did not mind. Nothing needed saying at the moment.

End of Chapter 15
Copyright © Don Granberry