Chapter 1: Here's Ranma!
He panted a little as he dragged the large man behind him. Every muscle in his small body hurt from the exertion and he had staggered more than once, nearly falling face first in the dirt. He looked up at the gate to the village; it was the closest civilization on the map, so this must be the place.
He looked at the man he pulled.
He had strapped him, his father, to a make shift stretcher made from roughly cut pieces of bamboo and any bits of wood and leaves he could twine together. It wasn’t the most sturdy of structures and had broken apart several times during the trip, forcing the boy to stop and repair it.
They had been travelling in this style for three days now, ever since the old man had taken ill. He wondered to himself why he should feel pity for his father, not after…
He shuddered and took another step forward, every ounce of him hurt and he wanted nothing more than to collapse right there and sleep, but he knew he couldn’t.
Even if he didn’t have to get help, sleep was not an option. Sleep meant dreaming and he really didn’t want to dream again.
“Stupid Pops,” he muttered, choking back the tears that threatened to fall, “Stupid, stupid old man.”
He sniffed and pulled, he could feel his father moan feverishly as he was dragged across the gravely dirt road. The stretcher caught at one stage, halting the boy in his tracks. He grunted and pulled hard, but it wouldn’t budge. It must have caught on something like a rock or an out growing root. He pulled harder and lost his footing, falling to the ground, skidding his knee and tearing the leg of his already tattered gi. He gritted his teeth and tried to get up, despite his tired arms.
He couldn’t give up!
A martial artist never gave up, never quit! He wasn’t about to do either. Not now when he was so close. Taking a deep breath, he struggled to his feet, only to find a spear pointed directly at his throat. He looked up and came face to face with a Chinese guard. He raised his head and squared his shoulders, mustering up more courage than he thought he had left in him.
“Please…” he chocked out in rough Chinese, he searched desperately for the words he needed, “I need help.”
Khu Lon patted her great-granddaughter on the head affectionately, the eight year old girl beamed with pleasure at her great-grandmother’s praise. Her long purple hair shone in the sun as she set her eyes on the next target.
Xian Pu was turning into perhaps one of the Joketsuzoku’s brightest and best warriors. She had a natural talent for reading her opponents moves and knew how to strike at the most opportune moment. Her skills rivaled those some three years her senior and her flair for life made Khu Lon proud.
“Is this right, great-grandmother?” the child asked sweetly, her voice like a chiming bell.
“Yes, yes,” the elder said with an affirmative nod, “You have achieved that quite well, my child.”
Looking happy and contented, Xian Pu returned to her training, her sparing partner looked a little tired, but was as ready as any true born Joketsuzoku girl to take up the fight once more. Khu Lon relaxed back into her seat as she watched the training. It was so nice to see the younger generations learning the ancient arts of the village.
The village of the Joketsuzoku – or the Amazons - had prospered much in all its period of existence. Through out the years they had remained strong against all opposing tribes whilst keeping to their ideals. Theirs was the only tribe in all of China whose warriors were made up almost exclusively of women. Though the men had their own training regimes and work, the village was largely run and protected by the female gender.
When Khu Lon was a young girl she had trained and fought for her land and for her people. She had been taught well and had eventually made her way up to being on the Council of Elders. It was a privilege she hoped another in her line, perhaps her grand daughter or one of her great-granddaughters, would someday earn. She also knew that the road to such a position was a steep one to travel and she wanted only the most prepared of her descendants to take it.
“Elder Khu Lon! Elder Khu Lon!” she turned in surprise to see one of the border guards running towards her, a frantic look on his face.
“What is it?” she asked the man, her eyes blinking widely in curiosity.
“An outsider!” the man exclaimed, “He is at the gates, there is a child with him.”
Khu Lon frowned. Outsiders did not often dare come near the village of the Joketsuzoku, those that did were usually young men who wished to challenge one of the village women for a place In the tribe. She knew why the guard had been so frantic though, outsiders were only permitted with an elder’s permission and the only reason this would be of any urgency is if the man or indeed the child were a threat or injured.
Deciding that she could probably deal with any danger one man and a child posed, she came to decision quickly.
“You may let him in,” she said, rising to her feet in the age-old grace granted to her through years of practice,
“Bring them both to me.” She smiled reassuringly at Xian Pu, gesturing for her to continue with her training.
The young girl looked momentarily curious and concerned, before shrugging it off and returning her attention to her opponent. Khu Lon cast one last look at her descendant before following the young man out of the training grounds. She felt oddly excited about the news of an outsider suddenly appearing at the gates. It was strange, but it was as though every martial artists instinct in her bones was vibrating with anticipation. Why, she could not tell.
Khu Lon was presented with the most peculiar sight; a bald man was brought in on a stretcher, his skin pale and his body limp. He was blinking around the hall Khu Lon had decided to receive the outsiders in with absolute bewilderment. His breathing appeared shallow and he kept muttering to himself in incoherent babble.
Frowning, Khu Lon took her staff and walked over to the man, examining him with a scrutinizing eye.
“Take him to a healer immediately,” she said to the stretcher-bearers, “This man is sick.”
Her word was obeyed without question, but what surprised her was someone she hadn’t noticed was there. As though he had appeared out of thin air, Khu Lon found herself face to face with a young boy of perhaps seven or eight years of age. He had a head of long, dark hair, which was tied back in a short braid. His face and arms were covered in scratches and his gi was torn and coated in spots of blood and dirt. He remained perfectly still though, looking determinedly at the ground, though Khu Lon recognized the faint quiver that ran through him despite his obvious efforts to not shake.
“Child-?” she began, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth the boy’s head snapped up and she was met with the most startling pair of blue-grey eyes she had ever seen. Like a stormy sea, wild and untamed.
He took a cautious step back from her, his eyes filled with mistrust and a spark of fear.
“Get away! You-you old ghoul!” he said defensively, in a clearly foreign tongue.
Khu Lon sighed.
A Japanese boy, and an impolite one, that was all she needed.
“I will not harm you child,” she said in Japanese, trying to soothe the boy.
As soon as she switched languages he seemed to relax a little bit, “Your father, I’m assuming, is quite ill. He has been taken to the Healer’s Hut. Can you tell me what happened?”
The boy seemed to hesitate.
“Pops got sick a few days ago,” he said, “I dunno what happened, it was right after he-he-”
The boy sniffed a little bit, clearly unwilling to carry on for fear of crying. Khu Lon looked on the child with pity, a boy he may have been, but in need of her he was.
“What is your name?” she asked instead, “Why are you in China?”
The boy licked his lips nervously, his eyes starting to wander around the hall for escape despite the two guards that were at the entrance. Khu Lon watched him curiously, a guess as to the boy’s purpose in China already forming in her mind.
“Ranma,” he said finally, if a little hesitantly, “My name is Ranma Saotome of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts. I’m on a training trip with my Pops.”
He stopped then, the whole of the first line appeared to be well rehearsed, but Khu Lon wasn’t really paying too much attention to that. Her only concern was when she heard the name of the boy’s school.
The Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. Happosai.
She couldn’t prevent the feelings of bitterness and rage that came with the memory.
At one stage in her life she had truly believed that the man, the so-called Grand Master of the Anything Goes School, had cared for her. But he had turned out to be no more than a pervert. The man who had been brought in had clearly been no Happosai, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t one of his disciples.
She scrutinized the boy with something of a pitying gaze; the child had no idea who he was dealing with.
“Who are you?” the boy asked bluntly, his eyes still roving for an escape route. “I am…” she paused, attempting to find the Japanese equivalent of her name, “Cologne. I am an elder of the Joketsuzoku.”
“The who?” Ranma asked, his curiosity appearing to get the better of him.
“The Amazons,” she said, cheering at the thought of the boy finally being able to open up a little, “We are a tribe of warriors, particularly female warriors.”
Ranma frowned in confusion.
“But Pops said martial arts aint no place for girls!” he protested weakly.
Khu Lon – or Cologne - smirked in amusement.
“Is that so?” Cologne asked, feigning shock, “Well, perhaps you should fight one of us girls and see whose right.”
The boy mumbled something under his breath.
“What’s that?” she asked, resisting the urge to poke him in the stomach with her cane.
“Pops says,” Ranma said with mortification, “That it aint right to fight girls!”
“Truly?” Cologne almost chuckled, she hadn’t been so amused in years, “And why is that?”
“Cause-cause-” the boy trailed off, frowning as he thought, “Ya know, Pops never told me why, he just said it aint right. He said real men don’t fight girls.”
“Well Ranma,” Cologne said carefully, “I don’t think its right to just fight a girl, or anyone really without cause. So if it was a training session or if you're fighting for something, then it should be okay, wouldn’t you agree?”
Ranma seemed to think this over and nodded in enthusiastic agreement, his blue eyes starting to shine a little bit.
Cologne smiled herself, but was slightly worried not only over the child’s appearance, but also his unwillingness to discuss what had happened to put him in that state. There was another feeling she had around the boy; anticipation she thought. A kind of excitement she had never known before.
“What’s gonna happen to me and Pops, Elder Lady,” he asked her out of the blue, “He’s gonna be alright, aint he?”
Cologne looked at the boy in surprise and realized just how vulnerable he was. She sighed deeply and gave the boy an encouraging smile.
“I’m sure he will be,” she said, “But in the mean time, shouldn’t we try to get a message to your mother?”
At this the boy looked extremely confused.
“I don’t think I’ve got one,” he said, “Pops aint never said nothing about a mother.”
Cologne resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the boy’s bad grammar and instead decided to feel pity for the motherless child. There were a number of reasons the boy was alone with his father, the mother might be dead, or his parents may have been estranged. Whatever the reason, until the father was well again it appeared that this boy was to be her responsibility.
“Grandmother,” a soft voice called from the door to the hall, Cologne pursed her lips as Mei, Xian Pu’s mother and her granddaughter, entered the hall.
Dark blue hair fell down her back and she looked surprised at the presence of a child.
“Oh I am sorry,” she apologized immediately, “I thought-”
“Can I help you Mei?” Cologne asked in a tired voice, wanting to get back to the situation at hand.
“Its nothing important,” Mei’s eyes were on the boy, “Is he alright, grandmother? He looks hurt.”
Khu Lon sighed.
That was her granddaughter.
Mei was perhaps not the strongest fighter in the Amazon tribe, but she was the most ideal caregiver. There were few women born into the world with a true spark for being a mother to everyone and Mei had inherited the gift. Cologne didn’t mind too much though, the gift had been her own mother’s and she welcomed the remembrance of the remarkable woman.
“He appears to have had a rough trip,” Cologne said finally, “His father is currently in the Healer’s Hut.”
“Oh,” Mei bit down on her lower lip, “Would you like me to get him cleaned up Grandmother? Get him some new clothes and a proper meal perhaps? The poor dear looks like he may need one.”
Cologne contemplated the offer and nodded her consent; she doubted she would get much out of the boy in any case.
“Ranma,” she said in Japanese, “This is my granddaughter Mei. She will take you to where you can get a hot bath and some food.”
At the mention of food, almost unsurprisingly, the boy’s face lit up and he looked at Mei expectantly. But as soon as his expression had perked up, it too fell.
“But-” he began.
“It’s okay,” Mei said, switching to Japanese without much effort, “We’ll go see your father in a little while.”
That magical expression crossed the kind woman’s face and Ranma nodded in immediate agreement. Cologne smiled, her granddaughter certainly had the knack for calming down even the most traumatized of children and traumatized Ranma was. The young Japanese boy took a few hesitant steps towards the smiling woman, until he could be gently led away from the hall. Cologne tapped her wrinkled chin. The excited feeling was still there in her gut, there was something about the child that was certainly interesting.
Xian Pu glared at the young boy from across the dinner table; he was quite happily nuzzling down the food her mother had prepared for their evening meal. There was an annoying grin of contentment on his face when he dared ask for more and her mother gave it to him, a smile of her own spreading.
Xian Pu didn’t bother to ponder the strange boy; she had returned home that evening to find him sitting in a corner by the kitchen whilst her mother prepared supper. His face was bruised and covered with scratches, but he didn’t seem too fazed by it. He had stared at her for several long moments in surprise before Mei had introduced them.
“Hi,” he said afterwards, waving a hand in greeting, but the worst thing was when he tried to pronounce her name, “Shampoo.”
She was certainly not impressed.
The fact that her family was entertaining an outsider, and an outsider male at that, was enough to make her stomach squirm.
“Where is great-grandmother?” she asked her mother, pointedly ignoring the child.
“She has things to attend to,” was all Mei answered.
Suddenly the boy spoke something in another language and Shampoo pouted as her mother answered in the same. She hated it when her elders spoke in other tongues around her and now this boy could too!
“Why is this outsider here?” Shampoo glared at the boy, “Why are you here?”
She cringed and backed up from her mother’s scolding gaze, looking down in spite of herself.
“Sorry,” Shampoo looked up in surprise to see the boy looking at her, his blue eyes were big, but he had just spoken in Chinese, “I don’t understand good. Speak bad also.”
Mei looked delighted.
“You speak Chinese Ranma?”
The boy frowned as he tried to understand her words, but then he slowly nodded and responded in the same language.
“My father want not learn,” he carried on in a clumsy voice, “Been in China two months, got phrase book and tried learn.”
Mei smiled widely and started speaking to the boy in Japanese again.
Shampoo sighed, her surprise wearing off and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
She didn’t like this boy, not one bit.
Boys were weak and simple minded. They lacked the skill and finesse to be truly skilled warriors and were only good for the very basics of the art. Boys like that stupid Mu Tzu, who thought they could impress a girl just by showing how strong they thought they were. It was enough to make her sick.
Strong outsiders, like Shampoo’s father, were a different matter though. They had overcome their meager male weaknesses and become true and powerful warriors.
Unlike most Joketsuzoku males, outsider males who had won their right into the village were of a different sect.
They taught their daughters to be strong and powerful, passing on their own skills as well as those of the Joketsuzoku, thus adding strength and power to the tribe. Shampoo was proud of her father. He was a strong man who had made his family and village only stronger.
Little boys, however, had not earned that right.
She watched with indifference as her mother stood up from her place and gestured for the boy to follow her, telling her family she was taking him to see his father. The boy, Ranma, took one last fleeting look at Shampoo before leaving the room as well. Shampoo crossed her arms in irritation. Boys!
Cologne looked at the man with pity.
His baldhead was drenched in sweat and he shivered uncontrollably as he muttered incoherent things.
Every now and then Cologne thought she caught phrases like; “Make him the best,” “Man among men,” “Tendo girl,” and “Join the schools.”
With a sigh, she turned to one of the healers examining the man and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
The healer just looked at the elder and shook her head, her eyes saying clearly that it was unlikely the man would make it through the night.
Cologne almost groaned, if this man did not somehow pull through she would have to make arrangements to get the boy back to Japan and probably to an orphanage.
For some reason she felt this was not a good idea, but what other choice did she have if the child’s father died?
She had no right to keep the boy, even if she wanted to, and who would take him in? She was well over a hundred! She couldn’t possibly be expected to take care of a sniveling outsider, even if he was an Anything Goes trainee.
She wondered why she felt any responsibility towards anyone associated with that school, especially after what Happi had done to her.
“Ranma…” the man started mumbling, “Where…is Ranma?”
To her shock, the man was looking directly at her as he said this, his beady eyes looking at her imploringly.
Cologne, against all her better judgment, inched closer to the man and was immediately grabbed by the arm. Surprised, but also a little impressed by the martial artist’s reflexes, she looked at the man questioningly.
He was shaking from fever, but still managed to get out the words, as though he knew his final fate was not long off.
“Ranma…” he said, “Has to…succeed. Has to become…the best, has to…inherit school. Make him the best…please…”
Cologne suddenly understood why the man had had his son drag them to this village. It wasn’t to get help; it was to ensure Ranma would be trained.
From the little she had gathered from the boy during their discussion, the man before her did not hold women in high regard. It must be out of pure desperation that he was here at all.
“Has to…be…the best…please…please…please...”
Cologne pursed her lips, considering the man before her.
If she did train the boy it would go against many of her teachings. He wasn’t of the Joketsuzoku for one and for another he was male. She couldn’t possibly make an outsider male ‘the best.’
Unless you adopt him as a Joketsuzoku, a small voice reasoned in her head, and besides, this might have some advantages.
Indeed, she reasoned, wouldn’t it be fun to train one of Happosai’s disciples to be better than him? What a surprise the old pervert would have should he ever choose to rear his ugly head.
She almost smiled at the thought. She then remembered the bruised, scratched up face of the young boy with the stormy grey-blue eyes and the look of well-masked vulnerability in them. Whatever this man had done to his son, surely it couldn’t be worse than any training she could dish out?
“I will,” she found herself saying before she could stop herself, “Ranma will be the best, I swear.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth though, she berated herself for it. Here she was, an elder of the Joketsuzoku, promising to train some slip of a boy whom she didn’t even know had any potential or not. The other issue was getting him accepted into the tribe, if she adopted him it wouldn’t be an issue, of course, but she would first have to prove that she had sound reason for doing so. Merely making a ridiculous promise was not going to cut it. She may have sworn to make Ranma the best, but most of it depended on the boy, she didn’t even know if he had it in him.
She tried to calm herself, she shouldn’t be thinking of this now. There was still a chance the boy’s father would pull through. She felt his grip slacken on her arm as he drifted back into delirium, there wasn’t much more she could do then allow the healers to do their work.
She turned in surprise as Mei and Ranma entered the Healer’s Hut, the boy immediately rushed to his father’s side. At Mei’s enquiring glance Cologne shook her head and the women gave him a sad look.
“Hey old ghoul!” Ranma said suddenly, turning to Cologne, “What’s gonna happen to my Pops?”
Cologne pursed her lips tighter at the child’s rudeness whilst Mei suppressed an amused smile behind her hand.
“The healers are doing all they can,” she said shortly, “We’ll just have to wait until morning.”
Ranma frowned at her.
“He’ll be okay though, right?” he enquired, though he betrayed no worry in his stance and voice, there was clearly some anxiousness in his expression, “I mean, the old man’s pretty tough, he should make it through.”
He studied his father’s face for a moment, a little anger sparking into his eyes.
“Man am I gonna get him for this,” the small boy said with surprising ferocity, “Can’t say he doesn’t deserve it though.”
“Why do you say that, sonny?” Ku Lon asked curiously.
“He-” Ranma trailed off with a small shudder, “Never mind. Lets just say I aint letting him near a food store ever again.”
He spoke as though he were babysitting an errant child and looked upon his father with as much irritation as a frustrated parent.
Cologne wondered if the boy was merely trying to take his mind off the fact that his father may well be dying and she had the sneaking suspicion that the boy knew. Mei seemed to sense the same thing. She bit down on her bottom lip, seeking silent permission from her grandmother. The elder nodded her consent, her eyes only leaving the boy for a moment.
“Ranma,” Mei said softly, “Why don’t you spend the night at my house and tomorrow we can come check up on your father? How does that sound?”
Ranma was still looking at his father, his blue eyes impossible to read, but he turned to Mei and nodded his head in consent.
He looked at Cologne again too and then back to his father. Without another word he looked away and followed the Joketsuzoku woman out of the hut again. Cologne gave a long-suffering sigh and silently prayed that the man would make it through the night.
Ranma lay awake in the bed the woman Mei had shown him to nearly an hour earlier. His mind was whirling with the day’s events and he was trying to fight off sleep.
He had been lucky, he knew, if his father had been well enough to get up to his usual antics he probably would have been kicked out of the village by now. He found he liked the Amazons he had met so far, even Mei’s daughter, Shampoo.
They had given him clean clothing, allowed him to bathe (the first he’d had in over a week) and tended to the wounds on his body. He now had some kind of funny smelling healing salve smeared all over him that was making the aches and pains in his muscles feel better.
Staring up at the ceiling he frowned, he was so going to get the old man back for making him worry when he got better.
If he gets better… Ranma turned onto his side as a sick feeling came into his stomach; what was he going to do if his Pops didn’t make it? He didn’t have any family, the only person he would willingly go live with was Ucchan and his father, but he didn’t know where to find them.
He smiled as he remembered his best friend and wondered if they would ever run into each other again. He didn’t understand to this day why his father had taken Ucchan’s cart, but he supposed there wasn’t any harm in it. Ucchan had looked pretty sad when they had left, running after the cart like that.
There was the Tendos, of course, his father had always told him he was going to run the Tendo dojo one day. Ranma had liked the idea of teaching martial arts, but wondered if they would take him in without his being trained.
He didn’t even know where the Tendo dojo was, or even if his father had been telling the truth.
He rolled over again.
There was, of course, the Amazons to consider; what would they do with him if his father didn’t make it? There was some underhanded reason his father had insisted on coming to this village before he became too out of it to even talk, Ranma knew there must be. Pops never did anything without a reason, even if most of them were for his own selfish gain. He wondered what the old man hoped to get out of it this time. Nothing good for him, he imagined.
Yawning, Ranma could feel his eyes starting to droop closed and try as he might, he couldn’t rid himself of the tiredness. He tried shaking himself. Rubbing his eyes to keep them open, even sitting up in bed, though it made his body ache and yawned again. Eventually, though he dreaded it, Ranma fell asleep.
“No daddy! Please no!”
Mei’s eyes snapped open at the fearful screams of the child.
She sat up in bed immediately, her husband casting her a sleepy, but enquiring look. Mei gave him a reassuring smile before rushing out of their room and into the guestroom where she had placed Ranma.
It was dark, but in the bright moonlight shining through the windows, she could see her young ward quite clearly.
The small boy was tossing in his bed, moaning and crying in fear.
“I don’t want to!” he cried, “Help! Help!”
Her mothers instincts took over in a thrice and Mei flung herself onto the bed, encircling her arms around the boy and hugging him as she whispered soothing words. He was surprisingly strong and almost knocked her away several times until he finally calmed down.
She hugged him closer as he lay still, slipping into a quiet sleep once more. She wondered, not for the first time, just what this child had endured to make him this way.
“Is he alright?” she heard a rough whisper and looked up to see her husband, Lou Fe, standing at the door.
She nodded, gently setting the boy back down to sleep.
She got up and gestured for her husband to follow her, waiting until they reached the living room before she began to speak once more.
“Something has happened to this boy,” she said slowly, “I feel like he needs someone, like he needs me.”
Lou Fe looked at her thoughtfully. He wasn’t a tall man, topping her by only a few inches. In the dim light his dark eyes were like two black pools, boring into her.
“His father?” he enquired.
“May not make the night,” Mei looked at her spouse imploringly, “I know it is much to ask, but should the boy’s father not survive-”
“You wish to take him in?” Lou Fe finished.
“We could give him a home,” she smiled, “I have a good feeling about the boy. I think he is very brave and kind, he just needs a little help.”
Lou Fe gave her an exasperated look and then smiled softly.
“When I was a boy,” he said slowly, “My father always spoke of having strong sons.”
Mei was surprised.
“And yet you end up in a village where girls are valued over boys?” she asked him with a coy smile.
“The best decision of my life,” Lou Fe said, returning the smile, “I have a beautiful wife and a smart, strong daughter. I am truly content. But should this boy be in need of a home, I would gladly offer ours, a son will be just as welcome.”
Mei’s smile widened.
“But do not assume, Mei,” Lou Fe said sternly, “The child’s father may yet survive the night and perhaps recover. Even then, we will have to have an elder’s blessing, if not permission, to adopt the boy.”
She nodded and hugged her husband.
Having this man defeat her in combat had probably been the best thing that had ever happened to her. Like all Joketsuzoku women, she too had been cocky and sure of herself and her skills, but by being defeated and then cared for by this man, she had been humbled somewhat. She had never been more grateful for the fact.
“Let’s sleep,” she whispered, “Nothing more can be done tonight.”
Neither, as they made their way back to bed, noticed their daughter listening in the shadows of the hallway, a sour look on her face.
Shampoo watched as her parents disappeared into their room, dark thoughts roving around in her mind.
She couldn’t believe that after barely a day of knowing this-this outsider, they would want to adopt him. How embarrassing! She crossed her arms over her chest and made her way determinedly to where the outsider slept.
She looked down on him in contempt. Not only was he an outsider, but he was male too. A pathetic, weak minded male. She watched him as he slept, glaring daggers at the boy. She wished she had a weapon on her, she’d put the outsider in his place, she’d…
“Please…” she heard the boy moan softly, but didn’t understand the word.
She froze for a moment, wondering frantically if the outsider had woken up and noticed her there, but his breathing remained the same and his eyes didn’t open.
Curious, she took a step closer to his bed when he moaned again.
She jumped back in surprise and noticed that he seemed to be dreaming.
A bad dream at that.
She was just about to high tail it out of the room when he moaned again.
He sounded so scared and vulnerable that she looked back at him. She sighed, cursing herself for a fool and gently reached over to stroke his head. The boy relaxed surprisingly well into her touch and she could almost feel a soft smile tug at her lips. She immediately withdrew her hand and hurried out of the room to her own bed, her head spinning as she berated herself angrily for doing such a thing.
Stupid, stupid, stupid boy!
Genma Saotome, father of Ranma Saotome, did not make it that night.
He died not long before dawn, having held on surprisingly well for someone with so high a fever. He passed on in his sleep and was buried two days later outside the village.
The ceremony was short. No one knew anything about the man save for his son. The boy in question kept silent. He had only spoken once since hearing the news of his father’s demise and that was to tell the elders what his fathers name was to put on the tombstone.
He stood apart from everyone as they buried him, as silent as the grave in which his father was being lowered into. After the ceremony he was taken into one of the training halls where Cologne had a long discussion with him about what was to happen to him next. He learned that he was to stay with Mei and her family for now.
Though he appeared surprised by this, he made no objections.
The elder watched him; worry etched into her ancient face, but said no other words. Ranma himself didn’t know what to feel exactly. His father had not been the best father, not after all he had done to him, but he had still been Ranma’s father.
His father had been a liar and a cheat. He had sold Ranma more than once for food and had made a million promises he never intended to keep. If Ranma had once had a mother, then the memory of her was buried down far too deep to ever recall. The special training Genma had put him through only a week before was still fresh in his mind and he was unconsciously rubbing the scratch marks from his encounter.
He shuddered, the images were still so strong in his head he was sure they’d never leave him.
No, even at the age of eight, Ranma knew that Genma Saotome had not been a good father. But that didn’t make it hurt any less. Thus, the life of Genma Saotome ended without much applaud, and the life of Ranma Saotome had all but begun.
He was now a Joketsuzoku.
Chapter 2: The Price
Ranma deals with his father's death and has a tough decision to make.
“He’s barely spoken, grandmother,” Mei sighed as she looked out of the window, her deep blue hair was secured back into a loose bun and she had cake flour smeared on her cheek from cooking all day. Since Shampoo’s birth, Mei had become something of a housewife, opting to rather cook for her husband than train in the fields.
“It’s only been a few weeks,” Cologne put forward wisely, “You can’t expect him to be over his father’s death already…”
“But he wont cry either,” Mei shook her head, adding a little more pepper to the soup, “I know he’s a strong boy, but not to shed a single tear? And the nightmares grandmother, he screams each night, shying away from some nameless terror. I’ve tried asking him about it, but he just deflects me!”
She added in more pepper.
“I understand,” Cologne said seriously, eyeing the soup pot a little nervously; just how much pepper was she adding to it? “But until he’s ready to open up, there is little we can do. We have no idea what horrors that boy and his father saw.”
“His father?” Mei scowled, “Oh, I would like to give that man a piece of my mind…”
“Respect the dead,” Cologne cautioned softly.
“Respect?” her granddaughter looked livid, “Whatever dreams haunt the child now are completely and utterly that Saotome’s fault!”
She kept adding pepper.
“Isnt that-?” Cologne began, gesturing to the soup, but Mei was on a role.
“I mean, there is only so much training you can put a small boy like that through,” she complained, all the while shaking pepper in the soup, “I-I just wish I could…”
She trailed off and sighed yet again.
“I don’t know grandmother, what do the other elders say?”
Cologne’s lips pursed.
Here came the crutch of the matter. In the weeks since the child’s arrival, Cologne had been defending her position tooth and nail. Her plan to foster the boy amongst them had been met with suspicion. She could not blame them on that score, she supposed. The boy was a stranger, practically blown in on the wind for all they knew of him. There was a strong belief that the best course of action would be to deliver him to the Japanese Embassy and be done with it. Cologne had found no passport or travel papers amongst the little belongings the boy and his father had brought with them. For all she knew, they were both in the country illegally.
“They do not like the idea of me training a boy,” she said slowly.
“Training?” Mei blinked, “You want to train Ranma? Why?”
“The boy is an heir to Anything Goes Martial arts,” Cologne looked thoughtful, “I knew someone a long time ago of the same school. He…disappointed me beyond any forgiveness. Its strange, but I feel like I could have a second chance with this boy.”
Mei’s gaze softened.
“I see,” she said and tapped her chin thoughtfully, “Does the child have any talent?”
“I don’t know,” Cologne admitted, “But if he does, I will train him, despite what the other elders say.”
Mei nodded, her thoughts turning to the small boy who had entered their home so abruptly. He was such a sweetheart, perhaps a little hesitant and brash, but sweet all the same. He seemed confused at first on how to act around females, but she had no doubts that he would adjust well into the tribe. If given the chance.
She stirred the soup.
“Will you be staying for lunch, grandmother?”
Cologne gave a start, eyeing the soup.
“No, my dear,” the elder said lightly, “I think I will wonder down to the training hall, see how the boy is holding up.”
Mei watched her grandmother leave, shrugged and took a sip of her soup. Her eyes watered as she spluttered on the peppery liquid and grappled for a glass of water.
Ranma scowled at Shampoo.
It had been three weeks since his father’s death and the little Amazon girl had given him no peace. Though they could hardly understand each other, he understood quite well what she thought of him. Not one of her comments and snide looks had gone unnoticed by the small pigtailed martial artist. He had learned within the first few days of his stay in the village that boys were not thought of very highly and he felt more than a little annoyed by the fact.
He watched her practice her sparing and tried to keep a tight lip from criticizing her stance and her form. It was all he could do to get to his feet and show herexactlyhow it was done. She stepped too wide and her blocks weren’t fast enough, but for some reason, no one faulted her for it. The adults around her would smile and praise her progress as she defeated opponent after opponent.
Ranma found this odd. Pops had never given him a good word, only showed him how to do it better and when Ranma did succeed, all he got was the non-committal nod and maybe a smile. But that was how his father was and from a young age Ranma had learned to accept it.
At the memory of Genma Saotome, Ranma felt a funny pinching sensation in his chest. A small voice in the back of his head cried; Daddy! Daddy’s dead!
Ranma squashed it, letting rage fill him instead.
Not Daddy, he berated himself, Pops. The stupid old man is gone, nothing I can do about it.
He left me all alone!The voice persisted.
I can take care of myself!He snapped back.
He brought up memories of the times his Pops had traded him for food.
But he always came back.
He remembered that Genma had never told him about his mother.
Maybe she’s dead.
The pit then. The pit!
The voice had no answer for that and Ranma knew he had won the argument with himself.
But that just made him feel worse.
Returning his attention to the match, he watched as Shampoo took down yet another opponent and admitted reluctantly that she was marginally better than the other girls and even, on the rare occasion, boys she trained with. But, and this he couldn’t help but give an internal, satisfied smirk for, he also noted that she wasn’t as good as him. Half the things she did he had learned ages ago!
He hadn’t trained in three weeks, maybe longer, not since his Pops had taken ill in any case. He was silently glad for the short break to allow the worst of the cuts on his body to heal, but now he was growing restless. He neededto train. He wanted more than anything to get up in one of the training halls and go over his forms. He felt lost without the daily routine.
However, he dared not train. He had seen how the boys in the village who wanted to be martial artists were treated. They were a joke to the community and the only way to effectively learn a martial art was to seek apprenticeship to a master in another village. For this, a boy needed permission from an elder and those permission slips came in far and few between.
He thought of the elders besides Cologne, the ones who watched him like they expected him to run off with one of their daughters or something. They seemed wary of him and Ranma couldn’t for the life of him understand why.
So no, he didn’t think he could get permission if he tried.
Maybe he’d leave on his own. He was pretty good at looking out for himself now and he was sure he could find food when he needed it. Maybe he could make it back to Japan. Maybe he could find Ucchan…
“You seem restless, sonny?” the annoyingly familiar voice of the village elder Cologne said at his side, disrupting his thoughts.
“Its nothing old ghoul,” he muttered miserably, watching as Shampoo commenced another fight.
“You wish to train,” Cologne said wisely, pointedly ignoring the boy’s rudeness with mild amusement. She gave him a playful tap with her cane, “Why not go out there, sonny boy? Lets see what you can do.”
Ranma frowned and rose to his feet, preparing to leave.
“I don’t fight girls,” was all he said as he left the training hall, barely noticing the amused gaze of the village elder that followed him.
“Hey! Wait up!”
Ranma turned in surprise to see a boy running after him. The kid was about his own age with long, dark hair and big, round glasses bouncing up and down on his head. Ranma paused to let him catch up, only to have the boy run past him to a nearby tree.
“Hey, you’re the new kid,” he said to the tree, “You’re taller than I thought you were.”
“Um,” Ranma coughed, drawing the boy’s attention towards him, “I’m over here.”
The boy put his glasses on and blushed, whirling around to face Ranma, his cheeks flushed a little in embarrassment and he walked over with an apologetic look on his face.
“Oh right,” he scratched the back of his head nervously, “Sorry about that, my eye sight isn’t that great. I’m Mousse, by the way.”
“Ranma,” said Ranma, a small smile playing on his lips, “You speak Japanese real well.”
Mousse grinned at the comment.
“Yeah,” he said, “My dad is really proficient in languages and stuff. He made me learn.”
“That’s cool,” Ranma ignored the pit in his stomach at the mention of a father, “So um, did ya need me for something?”
“Oh yeah, well you see,” the blind boy looked a little sheepish, “I heard you were Shampoo’s new foster brother.”
Ranma just shrugged. Cologne had made no mention of him being sent back to Japan, so he supposed he was just staying here until the Amazons could think of something to do with him.
“Are you a martial artist?” Mousse carried on, not seeming to notice Ranma’s expression.
Ranma was genuinely surprised by this statement and found himself nodding once more.
“Yeah,” he said in disbelief, not having told anyone but the old ghoul about that, “How did you-?”
“The way you were watching the bouts,” Mousse said smugly, “You looked like you knew every move the two fighters were going to make. You shook your head several times, always right before Shampoo beat someone. It was like you could see the end in sight. Either you watch way too much martial arts on TV, or you have experience.”
Ranma could only nod.
“My-my Pops taught me,” he muttered.
“Do you need a sparing partner?”
“Huh?” now Ranma was confused.
“None of the girls will spar with me seriously,” Mousse continued, “I want to take an apprenticeship in a neighbouring village next year, but I also want to know I can become strong on my own. My mom’s taught me some, but she’s away a lot now. You need a practice partner, well so do I. We can help each other.”
“I dunno…” Ranma began.
“Please!” Mousse begged, “I’ll help you learn Chinese, I’ll help you learn about the village, I’ll do anything! Please!”
Ranma thought about it for a moment, it would be nice to be able to train again and he needed a male partner…it seemed like a win-win. He got to fight again and possibly get some help in learning Chinese.
“Alright,” Ranma said, “You help me learn Chinese properly and I’ll spar with ya! Deal?”
Mousse beamed and the two shook on it. Ranma grinned back, he wasn’t quite sure yet, but he thought he might have made his first friend.
“So what do we do now?” Ranma wondered out loud.
“You want a tour of the village?”
“Okay,” he agreed, “That sounds-”
He suddenly froze, his entire body going rigid as his eyes caught sight of something.
In an instant, Ranma shot himself up a tree, shivering and shaking like a leaf, Mousse looked around in shock for what had scared the boy, but all he saw within any close vicinity was…
Cologne rushed as soon as she heard the scream, but all she found was Mousse. He was a familiar face around her home, having had a long-standing infatuation with Shampoo since they were practically babies. The nearsighted lad had his glasses on for once and was staring straight up. Cologne followed his gaze to the boughs of nearby pine tree. There, clinging to one of the highest branches and shaking was Ranma. There were tears of fear in his eyes and he was as pale as a ghost.
“Child!” Cologne exclaimed, there was now a small crowd of onlookers coming towards her, “Whatever is the matter?”
Ranma looked down at her and pointed a shaking finger to something just beyond the tree. Cologne looked around, but her eyes only met the white fur of a stray cat.
“G-g-get it away!” the boy cried, “G-g-get that stupid c-c-c-that thing away!”
Cologne was confused, before her old mind started working into high gear. She hadn’t seen a case like this in nearly a hundred years. In fact, she had thought the technique was sealed, how in the world…?
She snapped back, taking charge of the situation immediately.
“You!” she said, pointing to one of the onlookers, “Get that cat out of here. Now!”
“Stupid boy scared of cats!” Shampoo jeered with a laugh.
Cologne hadn’t even noticed her great-granddaughter had followed her from the hall. For the first time, she felt a stab of fear in her heart. If her suspicions were correct, this situation could become very dangerous.
Perhaps the other elders were right about the boy.
“Not now!” Cologne snapped at her great-granddaughter, she looked up at Ranma, “It’s okay Ranma, the cat is gone. You can come down now-”
Cologne froze, her eyes going wide. She looked up the tree to see Ranma unfolding quite leisurely from his curled up position on the branch with a feline elegance and her heart stopped as she met twin catlike slits. She took an involuntary step back.
“I’m going to resurrect Genma Saotome, so that I can killhim for this,” she muttered ruefully, she then looked to the people around her and said more clearly, “No one move a muscle!”
The cat like Ranma flexed and meowed, but didn’t attack. Then, just as Cologne was trying to think of a way to get out of this mess, Ranma shot off in a flash and disappeared from sight.
“Search the village!” she shouted, “And if you find him, call me. Do not, I repeat, do not touch him until I arrive. Now go!”
She watched as all the gathered villagers dispersed, the same thing running through her mind as she jumped onto the nearest roof to get a better view. She hoped none of the villagers would be foolish enough to approach the boy in this state.
“The Neko-ken!” she muttered angrily, “Of all the foolish things! He trains the child in the Neko-ken! Genma Saotome, you fool! You idiotic fool! Just like Happosai and even he wasn’t thisstupid!”
She surveyed the village around her carefully and was relieved when she saw the small form of a boy moving on all fours towards…her granddaughter’s home! She immediately leapt from the roof and took off after the Saotome child. She hadn’t had so much excitement in years and almost chuckled with exhilaration as she darted after him. Despite the clear danger of the situation, she was glad that the child had finally shown something of his previous training. It showed that he might have potential, though how she was going to convince the other elders now was beyond her.
She followed him to Mei’s home and watched curiously as the boy bounded into the kitchen and immediately crawled his way onto Mei’s lap. She had been sitting in the living room with a book in hand. Her granddaughter looked shocked by the action and stared at the boy in dismay.
“Ranma?” she said softly, but the small boy curled up tighter into a ball and purred. Then, as though on cue, tears started to fall down the small boy’s cheeks and soon his purrs turned into sobbing tears as he reverted back to his human mind. He kept clinging to Mei though and crying.
“Daddy!” he sobbed.
Cologne gave a small smile, this time the Neko-ken had acted on its most pressing need.
The need for comfort.
Ranma had not grieved the death of his father and she was happy to see the tears come from the small boy. As Mei wrapped her arms around him, Cologne turned away, knowing that she needn’t worry over controlling the Neko-ken. Ranma trusted Mei enough to allow her to calm him.
She left him to his tears, her mind working with new possibilities.
“….an adept of the Neko-ken!”
“He’s too dangerous!”
“We should send him back to Japan.”
“Lock him up! Lock him up!”
“It would be safer for the village!”
Cologne listened patiently to the arguments of the other elders whilst keeping an entirely calm look on her face. She waited until they died down before she spoke.
“I invoke the right of apprenticeship,” she said calmly and clearly, “And eventual adoption.”
“For who?” one of the elder’s asked hesitantly, though Colonge knew every single one of them suspected the answer.
Chaos broke out.
“…..against every law and tradition!”
“He’s a boy!”
“You cannot adopt or apprentice a male!”
“Actually,” Colonge spoke out loudly, “There is no law written by an Amazon that states the offer must be made to a female. It reads that the apprentice must be worthy. We only have laws dictating a male may not learn those techniques reserved in each family for women, there is nothing to stop me training the boy.”
“Why do you want to do this?”
“I have a feeling about the child,” Cologne said truthfully, “On his father’s death bed I swore I would make him the best, I would not have done so if I thought he didn’t have the potential. I gave my honour. I never go back on my word.”
“You would really train a male to be the best?” one elder queried, “Not your own great granddaughter, but the child of a stranger?”
“I will train Shampoo to the best of her abilities and she will be one of the best in our village, I tell you that,” Cologne said testily, “But Ranma will not only have Amazon training, I will send him out every year to masters across China, he willbe the best.”
“You think he can handle so many different forms?” one elder asked, clearly disbelieving.
“He is a disciple of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts,” Cologne decided to play on one of the Amazon’s most basic desires; revenge, “I’m sure you all remember the lecher Happosai?”
There was a murmur of hatred around the room.
“Imagine this, to train one of his own disciples to be greater and stronger than him and then to set him loose on the old wretch. Imagine the insult.”
Unsurprisingly, this idea the elders seemed to like.
“What of the Neko-ken?”
“He has chosen a maternal within the tribe, my own Mei,” Cologne said firmly, “He can be controlled.”
There was a chattering of murmured conversation as the assembly of women began discussing, bickering, shaking heads, shouting agreement and waving sticks in the air. Like most council discussions, it seemed like hours before the talk was done and silence finally reigned. Cologne waited patiently for their decision, her breath caught in her throat in anticipation.
“Very well,” it was Lotion who spoke, she was probably the oldest of the elders assembled and highly respected amongst the tribe, “You may train him, but there is one condition.”
“I thought there might,” Cologne sighed inwardly and faced her comrade, “What is this condition?”
“If, when the time comes, Ranma is unable to defeat Happosai,” she paused, looking solemn as though she too did not like the condition, “If he is unable to accomplish his purpose he will be useless to the tribe. Defeating Happosai will prove his final worth regardless of his gender. If he is unable to perform this task, you will execute him.”
“What?” Cologne exclaimed, “That is a harsh punishment for failure, he may not win the first time, it may take a few attempts to finally defeat the cur. Ranma is-”
“He will never be a full Amazon,” Lotion said, “Unless you plan to marry him to the tribe?”
Cologne had thought about that, all she would have to do was betroth him to a girl until he had reached marriageable age, but that came with its own set of problems. Every Amazon girl she knew grew up dreaming of being defeated by a brave and strong outsider male. There were few families who would let their daughters give up on this dream. She had even thought of offering her own great-granddaughter, Shampoo, but the thought of making her marry someone she would very well be growing up with and living with as an adopted sibling made her stomach churn.
Cologne shook her head.
“Then he will have to be adopted, but be warned Cologne; failure is not an option,” Lotion gave a weary sigh, “I realize this is much to ask of the boy, but the only reason we have survived as a tribe this long is because we have preserved our secrecy. There are still many years before Ranma will have to face him, if the lech should appear again that is. You have the time to train him Cologne, but a price must be met. In exchange for the honour of being part of this tribe, despite his gender, he must give something up in return. Outsider males have given up their tribes and beliefs for centuries to be part of this; Ranma will be given no exception. He must either defeat Happosai, or die in the attempt; if he is unable to fulfil this, you must take his life yourself.”
It was unfair. Hypocritical and unfair. If Ranma were a girl, they never would have placed this condition on her. There was something else about his presence that irked these elders, though Cologne couldn’t quite put her finger on it. But now she had time. He would become a fosterling of the tribe until the day he could walk proudly as one of them. It wasn’t what she had hoped for, but it was something.
“Ranma willdefeat Happosai,” Cologne said finally, her eyes hard, “I have sworn that he will be the best and that is what I will make him. Ranma Saotome will be an Amazon, mark my words on this.”
Ranma sat outside the training hall, his arms curled around his legs and his knees pushed to his chest. Embarrassment flooded his cheeks red and he fought back even more tears than those he had shed in front of Mei and the old ghoul. It was the first time since his father had put him through the training that he had relapsed into that state.
The sight of the cat had brought it all back, every singleterrifying moment. The smell of fish, dirty fur and his own blood. Cats screeching and clawing at his flesh, him screaming, begging his father to let him out. He hated his father for it, hated him for the pain, for the humiliation and for the fear. He hated him most of all for leaving him alone to deal with it, alone in a place where he could only understand a few people, where most of them disliked him on sight and the rest ignored him as a nuisance.
He felt guilty then; his father was dead. Dead and gone. There was no one to blame, no one to take it out on, no one here to go all out with. He wanted to hit something, punch and hit so hard that it would hurt him too. He needed to feel something other than the pain in his chest and the guilt in his heart.
“Hello sonny,” an aging voice cackled gently in his ear, “Where’s Mei?”
Ranma gave a start, frantically wiping away the rogue tears that had begun to creep their way down his face.
“With Shampoo,” he sniffed, remembering with a cringe the awkward moment when the annoying girl had walked in on him hugging her mother. The angry screech was still ringing in his ears.
“Ah,” was all the Elder said and took a seat beside him on the ground, her walking stick propped up on her shoulder, “Do you know what happened to you today, sonny?”
“I turned into a cat,” he said softly, biting down on his lip.
“Not quite,” she said with amusement, “You entered a type of berserker state, one that makes you act like a cat.”
“Berserker?” Ranma turned to look at her in confusion, “What’s that?”
She sighed, tapping her finger wearily on her cane.
“Difficult to explain,” she said, “Traditionally, people usually develop the ability on their own, some are just predisposed to it I suppose. It usually comes out when they are extremely angry or in a life-threatening situation. The smell of blood has been known to be a trigger.”
“I don’t understand-” Ranma began.
“It’s when a warrior becomes crazy in battle,” she said, “He or she becomes unstoppable, without fear, without remorse. All they can do is fight and when it’s over, they don’t remember a thing.”
Ranma’s eyes widened at the description; is that was his father had done to him? Turned him into a monster? He remembered waking up in the back of a fish stall, full to the point of being sick, the place was wrecked and his father was wrapping him up in a blanket, trying to carry him away before the many shouting men could get to them. He remembered asking what had happened, he remembered his father’s pale face, he remembered looking at a newspaper later and realizing he had lost three days.
“Your father,” the Elder continued, “Subjected you to the Neko-ken, a technique that has been forbidden since its creation because of its many…disastrous side effects.”
“Side effects?” Ranma dared ask in a trembling voice.
“An irrational fear of cats, psychological trauma and complete loss of sanity if it fails,” she looked at him now, eyes taking a serious light, “The Neko-ken was designed by the Musk Dynasty a very long time ago. They were a race of people who had bred with animals and so had taken on those abilities. In the last days of that empire, the technique was created to maintain the bond between human and beast. It became an artificial method of creating berserkers and a flawed one. Instead of sending the adept into a rage, it creates an induced psychosis caused by their extreme fear of cats. Their strength, speed and prowess in battle are greatly increased, but they are at mercy to the instinct of the thing that they have come to fear most. Luckily the Dynasty fell before they could experiment with any other animals besides cats.”
“How did Pops know about it then?” he asked curiously.
“The last copy of the Neko-ken was stored here for centuries, guarded and sealed,” Cologne suddenly looked angry, “But a man came here, to my everlasting shame he tricked me and stole many of our treasures, included in this was the details of the Neko-ken. It is my belief, Ranma, that this man was your father’s master, Happosai, Grand Master of the School of Anything Goes Martial Arts.”
Ranma’s eyes widened.
“I never heard Pops talk ‘bout him,” he said weakly.
“The man was a cruel pervert,” she hissed, trapped in some terrible memory, “Your father was smarter than I gave him credit for if he removed all association.”
Ranma remained silent, unsure of how to carry on. In his head he was going over everything that had happened. Had his father known the Neko-ken was dangerous to learn? Probably. Had he cared? Probably not.
Guilt and hate struck him again.
“So what happens now?” he whispered, “Ya said berserkers couldn’t be controlled, does that mean-”
“There is a way to control it,” Cologne smiled at him kindly, “When an adept of the Neko-ken trusts someone enough, he allows them to calm him down and returns to his sane mind. You chose someone today who you trust enough to do that.”
“Mei,” Ranma said softly and swallowed hard.
“You can stay here, but there is a condition.”
Cologne sighed heavily.
“This is not something I would want to put on the shoulders of an eight year old boy,” Ranma was about to protest, but she silenced him with a wave of her hand, “Don’t argue sonny, you’re not even old enough to shave yet let alone deal with what I’ve got to tell you, but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.”
He watched as she readjusted the way she sat, never once taking her eyes off him. Her wizened face looked even more haggard all of a sudden. She looked like this was the last thing she wanted to be telling him.
“I’ve spoken with the Council,” Cologne tapped her cane, “And they have agreed to let me take you as an apprentice, perhaps leading to eventual adoption into the tribe.”
“Why would ya want me for an apprentice?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
“Because I think you have potential,” she grinned ruefully, “Your father made you drag him here for a reason; he wanted you to be the best and I swore on his death bed that I would make you so.”
Ranma just stared at her. His father was always, alwaysgoing on about him becoming the best, a man among men and a great martial artist. It was all he had ever known, all he had ever wanted. He had thought that dream was dead when his father died, thought it buried with him. No one else was going to push him like his father had and he had accepted that fact, but now…
“Why?” he chocked out.
Cologne regarded him, her expression gentle.
“Because I have a good feeling about you,” she licked her lips,” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of life, it’s to trust a gut feeling. I will teach you to be the best, if that is what you want.”
Ranma blinked and opened his mouth to affirm his commitment, but then he remembered Cologne’s words and his tongue suddenly seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth.
“And the conditions?” he asked carefully.
The Elder laughed, obviously pleased.
“Clever boy,” she said approvingly, “Never take an offer at face value, that’s your first lesson. Now the conditions; those are the tricky bits, but the Council won’t agree otherwise. You see sonny, you’re too dangerous now for us to just let loose on the world and you’re also a boy which brings a whole set of problems all on its own.”
“Sorry for bein’ born a boy,” he said dryly.
“You’re forgiven,” Cologne cackled, then seemed to sober up, “Point being, we are a tribe of women, any boys born to this tribe don’t stay here long. They either take up a trade or they leave to be apprenticed somewhere else. Men can join the tribe only by defeating one of our warriors and marrying them, by doing this they prove themselves as worthy, as equals to a woman’s power. Traditionally, women do not train men how to fight, they do not waste their time doing so. Our beliefs put the priorities of females above that of the male. Understand?”
Ranma frowned, but nodded.
“My intention is to train you in Amazon techniques as well as apprentice you out to as many different masters as I can find,” her smile was back now, “Anything Goes means anything and everything it takes to win. An amusing school, but I always did enjoy that principle. Many women don’t like the idea of me doing so, not without a reason that is.”
“Reason?” Ranma repeated, his frown deepening.
“Happosai stole from us, humiliated us,” she looked angry now, “It is the worst possible insult for a man to do this to an Amazon woman. The price for such an insult is death.”
Ranma blinked, shirking away a little from the tiny Elder. He didn’t think he liked where this conversation was going.
“We are a merciless race,” Cologne said with a bitter smile, “I have seen enough of the world to know it, but it is who we are. Obstacles, as the saying goes, are for killing.”
Ranma definitely didn’t like the sound of this.
“I will not ask you to kill Happosai,” she tapped her cane again, “It is not your offense to justify, but if you wish to learn under me, there will be a time when I will ask you to fight the man and win. You must defeat him and hand him over to the tribe for trial. That is the condition.”
She had told him to go with his gut, well something in his gut was gnawing at him like crazy and he had to ask, he had to know the consequences of failing to complete such a task.
“And if I don’t win?”
“Then, as the Council will see it, there has been no reason to train you and your life will be forfeit,” she looked at him sternly, “You will die.”
The eight year old felt oddly calm about being threatened, he waited for the Elder to continue, and somehow he knew there was more.
“Your options sonny, are these,” Cologne said, “You can choose to take the apprenticeship, learn all you need and maybe one day fight Happosai, if he is indeed still alive. Or the Council can lock you up so that your Neko-ken is never a danger to anyone; you will grow old and die alone in a cell. Or there’s a third option.”
Cologne nodded, her face becoming solemn.
“If you tell me right now you want nothing to do with this I will have you on a boat to Japan by dawn tomorrow, safely away,” she took a breath, “I cannot help you beyond that.”
She lapsed into silence then and Ranma knew she was waiting for an answer. It was a lot to think about and Ranma had the funny feeling that he couldn’t ask for time to do so. She wanted, no, she neededan answer right now.
The second option was out immediately, he knew he would die a lot sooner than Cologne obviously thought if he had to be confined to a cell for the rest of his life. The very idea of never venturing outside or learning the art made him shudder. The third option had more appeal to it. She was willing to risk the wrath of her peers to get him out of China, but then what? He didn’t have any family, no one in Japan who would want him. The Tendos might take him, but he didn’t know where they were or if they would indeed do so. The same for Ucchan, now he thought of it. It was a lot to rest on an assumption and he didn’t want to end up in an orphanage somewhere, forever deprived of learning what had been his entire life.
So that left option number one, a harsh penalty if he failed, but a great reward if he succeeded. It would be a long time before he had to fight Happosai, if the man ever appeared, in the mean time he would be able to train, maybe he’d get to teach someday too, and he could stay close to Mei. He would also be close to his father’s grave and despite all the bad feelings he had for the man, he was still his father and it was his obligation to remember.
He looked at Cologne, swallowed hard and sealed his fate.
“I accept the apprenticeship.”
Cologne closed her eyes as though in pain and nodded, finally rising from her seating position.
“Good,” she said softly then looked at him, “Go back to Mei now sonny, get some dinner and a good nights sleep. Tomorrow, your training begins.”