Zhu Shu raised tear filled eyes to Shan Pu. "Please," she whispered in Mandarin, "Ranma has done nothing to be blamed for, Shan Pu. If you must be angry, let it be with me." Her voice was barely audible between her sobs. "It is I who has nearly betrayed you. Ranma has done nothing."
Shan Pu stepped over to the distraught girl and knelt to lift her face to hers. "Zhu Shu. Blood-sister. I told you once that I would be overjoyed to have you as a sister-wife. Knowing that what you have done was on my behalf, as well as Ranma's, I could never be angry. I don't know what you feel you have done to betray me, but I can see you love Ranma. I do not view that as a betrayal, Zhu Shu. If anything, I view that as proof of his qualities as a husband." Heedless of her formal garb, Shan Pu lifted her hem and wiped away the smaller girl's tears. "Besides, I need you more than ever. I need your advice on how to deal with this barbarian girl who is to be his other wife." She rolled her eyes to get Zhu Shu to laugh, but her attempt at humor failed. Zhu Shu choked and pushed away from her, running from the garden in tears.
Shan Pu looked after her, wondering what she'd done wrong when Ke Lun spoke. "Ah, Great-granddaughter. I know you meant well, but can you not tell her heart is lost to the girl as well?"
Shan Pu hung her head. "I had not. I am ashamed of the hurt I caused"
"Zhu Shu will understand, Shan Pu, when she can think rationally. I will speak with her. But I must say it bodes well for your future. For both your groom and his fiancée to have won her heart so completely, they must have much in them to love." Ke Lun turned to where Nodoka was bending over Ranma, switching to Japanese. "How is my future son-in-law?"
Nodoka was staring at Ranma, and wonder was evident on her face. "I couldn't believe you when you told me of his curse, yet he looks exactly as I did at sixteen. I cannot doubt you now. He must be such a handsome boy. I have missed him so much these last ten years!" She looked up. "When he wakes, we must get him some hot water." She looked back down. "Red hair? I wonder who's side of the family that's from?"
Ke Lun hopped over on her stick and waved a small vial under Ranma's nose. Ranma sneezed and sat up, looked at Ke Lun, Nodoka, and Shan Pu, eeped and jumped up to run away. Her foot was intercepted by Ke Lun's stick, and she flipped over a rock, legs flailing uselessly in the air. Shan Pu blushed as Ranma let out another "Eeep!" and righted herself, pulling the oversized sweater back down. She stared at the trio, her face a bright red.
"Cute heart." was Ke Lun's only comment.
Ranma's eyes slowly lost the deer in the headlights look as she realized the three women were making no move towards her.
"Do calm down, son." Nodoka said soothingly. "I know you must have had a few shocks this last little bit, but you're perfectly safe. Shan Pu has no intention of killing you. In fact, we're here for your formal betroth–"
"RANMA SAOTOME! YOU BITCH! HOW COULD YOU MAKE ZHU SHU CRY LIKE THAT!" Akane stormed into the garden, murder on her face.
"You no talk to groom like that!" Shan Pu jumped into Akane's way and went to shake her finger in Akane's face. Akane registered only that a strange girl was moving to an attack position and reacted before recognition sat in.
Shan Pu's hand was intercepted in mid motion and before she could react, she sailed over Akane's head and landed headfirst against a rock. The rock cracked from the impact as Shan Pu dropped like a pole axed steer.
Zhu Shu's memories finally penetrated Akane's anger and she looked at the unconscious Amazon in horror. "Oh no! Shan Pu!" She looked around, finally noticing the other two women in the garden. Confusion loomed large on her face. "Who are you?"
Before anyone could say anything, a clatter came out from the house as the Amazon village elders came into the garden. "Ke Lun, it is–" They stared at the tableau before them, Shan Pu unconscious, Akane over her still in a partial stance, Ranma staring wide eyed at Akane, Nodoka looking concerned…
Ke Lun shook her head. "Child… Child… what have you done?"
"It was self-defense! I was mad at Ranma! I just reacted!" Akane protested.
Shan Pu groaned. Ranma's face went absolutely white as Zhu Shu ran up to the dining room door and stopped in horror. A heartbroken wail escaped her lips.
Shan Pu shook her head and sat up. Her eyes fell on Akane. Akane stepped back and set herself as Shan Pu stood and approached her, a dangerous glint in her eyes. Akane met her gaze, not moving an inch. All eyes were locked on the pair. Zhu Shu let out a soft moan of anguish as Shan Pu's hand reached out to slowly cup Akane's chin. Akane never flinched.
The moment froze as time seemed to cease to flow…
0 0 0 0 0
Ke Lun, Nodoka, and the village elders looked at the loss of the alliance they had spent the last week arranging, and the possible beginning of a blood feud. The law was clear… It all rested in the palm of Shan Pu's hand.
0 0 0 0 0
Ranma was preparing to spring to Akane's defense, fear writ large in her eyes as well as her determination to die before allowing Akane to come to harm…
0 0 0 0 0
Zhu Shu looked upon the failure of all she cared about. No-one could look at her and not know her life would end along with that of one of her friends…
0 0 0 0 0
Akane stared Shan Pu in the eye, and not a trace of fear could be found. She would fight to the last breath if she had to… but she would never surrender.
0 0 0 0 0
Three thousand years of Amazon law glared at Akane through Shan Pu's eyes. A law that demanded death for the shame of loss. To break the law was unthinkable. To keep it was a pain she would not be able to bear. Ranma would die for this girl. Zhu Shu would die of her loss. Yet the law was clear. Death was the only acceptable choice.
She chose her own.
Her lips met Akane's in a passionate kiss. Ranma loved her. Zhu Shu loved her. She could not be the instrument of her death. Defeat by an outlander could only result in death or marriage. The law was absolute, but so was her heart… and in the duel between them both, her heart won.
As the kiss ended, she raised her eyes to look into Akane's and whispered, "Wo de ai..." Then she stepped back and knelt to accept the deathblow she knew would be delivered. She had defied the law in front of the elders, there could be no other sentence. A single tear for what might have been fell down her cheek and splashed against the ground.
Silence reigned. Only the sound of Ke Lun's stick tapping the ground as she drew closer could be heard. It stopped close by and a long moment of stillness passed before Ke Lun finally spoke in Japanese. "Child. Do you know what you do?"
"I cannot slay one whom I love. Kill me and let my heartbreak end." Shan Pu whispered in Chinese. A murmur arose from the elders and a gasp came from Akane.
Ke Lun turned to her. "You understood her answer, Child of the Tendos?"
Wide eyed, Akane nodded, astonishment in her eyes.
Ke Lun nodded and continued in Chinese. "Shan Pu, Daughter of Par Fume, you are the Amazon's Champion, yet you stand defeated by this outland woman. The law demands death, yet you have defied that law. Have you a defense?" Her voice was cold, emotionless… a judge declaring court.
"The law is absolute. A death must be given. I offer my own. I cannot slay one I love. Kill me and let my heartbreak end." was Shan Pu's whispered reply.
Ke Lun turned to Akane. "Outland warrior. You have heard and understood her words. Our law is clear. Do you have anything to say?" Ke Lun held up a hand as Zhu Shu tried to say something, then looked at Akane again. "I ask again. Do you have anything to say?"
Akane looked down at the Amazon girl, her emotions churning. Images of Shan Pu laughing, smiling, even the look of concentration she had when fighting floated through her mind from Zhu Shu's memories. Emotions of caring, affection, even lust lurked within those memories. Zhu Shu loved her like a sister, and through the link she shared with Zhu Shu, she could feel the link Zhu Shu had made with Shan Pu when they became blood-sisters. She knew the law of the Amazons was absolute, and yet…
Shan Pu had chosen to sacrifice herself… rather than kill her and destroy all chance of love.
Akane looked at Ke Lun and spoke the only words she could say. "I beg for her life. I beg for mercy on her behalf. In the name of love, let her live." She spoke in perfect Chinese, not knowing where the words came from, but knowing it was the only reply that stood a chance of being heard.
Ke Lun nodded. She turned to the elders. "You have heard and witnessed. The law gives but one answer in this."
Ranma, Zhu Shu and Nodoka looked on as the elders nodded and spoke as one. "Agreed."
Ke Lun switched back to Japanese as she turned to Shan Pu. "Rise child, and hear the judgment of your elders."
Shan Pu rose, relieved she was to be allowed to die on her feet as a warrior should. Her eyes met Ke Lun's face, and she was surprised to see a gentle smile.
"Your heartbreak will end, child of my child's child, but not in death." She turned as the Loremaster moved forward.
"The law of the Amazons is absolute," Lo Shen intoned, "Yet the elders have long realized that there are times where the word of the law can not be the only consideration. Long ago, an Amazon woman was defeated by an outland male, a man who had been married before the battle, and was husband to a friend of the Amazon woman. The law demanded the man wed the woman he had defeated, yet the wife challenged for her husband. She fought well and defeated the Amazon, and with tears in her eyes, prepared to fight to the death. Yet the Amazon woman refused to slay her, saying only she would not kill a loved one. The elders met to deal with her crime, yet before they could mete out the sentence, the outland woman stood before them to beg mercy for her friend. Love did not deserve death, she argued, and her words moved the elders, and they considered the law."
"After much deliberation, it was decided to uphold the spirit of the law, for the law defined two courses of action for the defeat of the Amazon woman. If the woman could not choose the one, she must fulfill the other. Only by such actions could Honor be maintained. By the law, she was wed, to be both wife and sister-wife; thus was the law met."
"Then there appeared to the elders a goddess, golden of skin and pale of hair, who told them of her testing. She praised them for the quality of mercy they had shown in the face of absolute law. There would come times, she said, where mercy would save the Amazons from destruction. She bade us remember always the need for both wisdom and mercy, for if we forgot, so would we perish. We have held to her words over the centuries and have endured where those around us have vanished. We hold to her words today."
The Loremaster turned and faced Shan Pu. "The law is clear, Daughter of Par Fume. Death or marriage. Honor is met either way. You have been defeated by Ranma Saotome. By law shall he become your husband. You have been defeated by Akane Tendo. By law shall she become your wife. May love last as long as life. The elders have spoken."
The other elders echoed her last words as the Loremaster turned and rejoined the rest. "We are finished here and must prepare for the betrothal of Ranma Saotome and the alliance of the Amazons and Clan Saotome. In one week, at the Amazon village, we will hold the betrothal of Akane Tendo and the alliance of the Amazons and Clan Tendo."
With the Loremaster's last words, the elders turned and re-entered the house.
Shan Pu fainted, along with Zhu Shu… Ranma turned wide eyes to Akane and asked "What the hell just happened?"
Nodoka was looking at Ke Lun. "Yes. I am curious as well."
Ke Lun cackled. "We do not often hold court in front of those not Amazon, but you are to be a part of the tribe. Akane defeated Shan Pu. Shan Pu could not give her the kiss of death, because she would not kill one she loves, and she knew that Akane's death at her hands would likely have lead to such deaths. Akane asked for her life in the name of love. She chose the one defense for Shan Pu we have no choice but to hear." She turned to Akane. "I do not often thank anyone for anything… but I thank you. I do not think I could have borne having to kill Shan Pu for her defiance. I hope you shall prove a worthy wife for her. But I will warn you as well. The heart of an Amazon, once given, is forever." She turned to Nodoka. "I will leave the children in your care Sister-in-law. I must join the other elders to make the preparations." with a last cackle, she was gone.
Nodoka clasped Ranma on the shoulder. "Well son, I dare say your life will be interesting." She turned to the three other girls, two unconscious and one staring into space. "From your words to Zhu Shu, I can see you have a noble heart, and to be so loved by three different girls, you must be quite a man indeed, regardless of your curse. Your father has had his ten years, and I have a son who is a man among men. You will not have to commit seppuku."
Akane and Ranma's eyes locked on Nodoka, and the dead seriousness of her voice… it was too much.
Nodoka sighed as she looked at four unconscious girls… "Children..."
0 0 0 0 0
Up in her tree, Urd still sat in shock. The ultimate force had guided Shan Pu to a resolution Urd had not expected, but it looked like it would be a better way of making Shan Pu happy than any of her love potions. She was relieved, but the Loremaster's tale had stunned her… A goddess with white hair and golden skin?
She had to consult with Yggdrasil.
0 0 0 0 0
Hidden on a roof a block away, Mara smiled and pulled out a mirror.
0 0 0 0 0
In a fortress in China, The masked man smiled at the news, then tucked the mirror in his sleeve. A week from now in China. He would have to move quicker, but they couldn't have played into his hands better. The Demon had indeed been useful. Now to arrange his end of their bargain.
Grandly, he strode out into the main throne room and floated up to the shadowy throne. "Have you come to a decision?"
"We have been enemies of the Amazons for generations, Wizard, but I am still not sure this alliance with Clan Scorpion is in our best interests ... or in yours." A feminine voice replied from the shadows.
"Both, my dear Herb. You need troops, and you need to revitalize your Dynasty. For the first, the Scorpion Clan can provide you with men, and for the second, the Amazons you capture will make excellent breeding stock." The old man eyed the figure in the throne. "Unless, that is, you want to volunteer yourself to breed heirs."
"I would advise you to watch your tongue, Wizard. I may not be as powerful in this form, but I can still deal with you."
"Why, Herb, I thought we were friends." the old man smiled, then changed tactics as he saw Herb's eyes narrow. "Very well. What if I told you of a way to undo the effects of the Chisuitton and free you from that female form?"
The white haired female with a black streak in her hair leaned forward from the throne, a vicious expression robbing her face of whatever loveliness it might have had. "Then I would say, Xi'an Chi, that we have a deal..." The smile on her face would have frosted glass.
0 0 0 0 0
Genma stopped dead in the doorway looking at the woman waiting for him, terror writ large on his face. He had come home from his job at Doctor Tofu's when Kasumi had called him, wondering why the eldest Tendo girl had insisted on him coming home, but had been unwilling to tell him why. The woman before him gave him the answer.
"Hello, dearest husband."
"N– N– N– N– Nodoka!"
"You seem surprised to see me. Imagine my surprise to discover you had returned to fulfill the engagement with the Tendo's, yet had neglected to inform me."
Genma looked for a way out, but there wasn't one. The street was too far away, and he'd never been able to out-run his wife. "Um…"
Nodoka stepped forward, still smiling. "I'm so glad that you were just waiting till you could surprise me with the wonderful news." She gave him a penetrating stare. "At least that's what we are going to pretend it was, right? Not that you didn't want to tell me you got our son cursed to turn into a girl."
The color in Genma's face drained until he was grey. "Y– y– y– you know?"
She turned to take the cloth wrapped bundle off her shoulder and unwrapped it to reveal the katana held within. "As a matter of fact, yes. Our son is off taking a bath at the moment. While he makes a beautiful daughter, I want to see what kind of a man he has become, at least physically. I am already proud of the man he is inside." She dropped the cloth to the floor and gripped the hilt of the katana. "He also seems entirely ignorant of the promise you made."
Genma tried to melt into the wall. He wasn't successful.
Nodoka was still smiling. "How wonderful for him you seem to have kept it."
Genma blinked… and blinked again. Was he off the hook? "So… you think he's manly?"
Nodoka patted his cheek. "Absolutely. After all, he's managed to attract two fiancées."
Genma gulped. "Uh… I can explain." He racked his brain to figure out how to explain why he had offered to betroth Ranma to Zhu Shu to save his skin.
"There's no need, husband. Father knows everything. He's even coming here today for the betrothal."
Genma gulped. "Your father?" He heard the wall behind him creaking as he tried to crawl into it. "Look, Zhu Shu was going to cut my head off. I didn't have a choice!"
"Zhu Shu? You mean that charming Chinese girl who is Shan Pu's blood-sister? You mean you tried to betroth our son to her, too?"
The wall cracked. "Shan Pu! Blood-sister?"
"Oh… you didn't know about that? When you abandoned the poor girl in the Amazon village, she told them about how you had foolishly gotten both Ranma and her cursed. It seems Shan Pu's people have two laws that govern what happens when someone challenges them to a fight, as happened when you couldn't control you appetite. When our son defeated their champion, he became her husband."
"But– but, I thought she was trying to kill us!"
"Had someone allowed her to continue to think he was a girl, she would have been."
"But she chased us all over China!"
"You took her husband and ran. Of course she did. If she and Zhu Shu hadn't split up to try and find you, they would have arrived together, and that would have been a huge mess, Genma. Zhu Shu has been quite busy fixing your mistakes."
"How do you know all this!"
Nodoka turned and motioned for him to follow her. Nervously, Genma did so, and in the dining room found the Amazons setting up things for a formal ceremony. Nodoka stepped up to Ke Lun. "Pardon, Elder Cologne. You asked to see my husband when I was done with him?"
Ke Lun turned. "Indeed." She gave Genma a once over. "Quite the merry chase you led my great-granddaughter on, Saotome. I certainly never expected you would be quite that adept at eluding capture, though had I known you were a student of Happosai's, I would not have allowed Shan Pu and Zhu Shu to pursue you alone. Still, no harm done."
The already pale Genma went several shades whiter at the mention of his old master's name. "You know the master?"
"I think you mean past tense, Saotome. And had you not rid the world of the pest, we would not be celebrating so much today."
"Yes, dear. It seems the Amazons consider your sealing Master Happosai in a cave forever a deed worthy enough for them to approach Father and suggest a formal alliance for House Saotome, House Tendo, and the Joketsuzoku. Father accepted. We're here to formalize that and betroth Shan Pu to Ranma."
"But what about his engagement to Akane?"
"He will still marry her. And Shan Pu. And possibly even Zhu Shu if she will just accept his hand." Ke Lun said. "And next week young Akane will be betrothed to Shan Pu in our village. Thus will the alliance be formalized."
"Akane is betrothed to Shan Pu?"
"She defeated my great-granddaughter in fair combat, and Shan Pu has given Akane her heart. They shall be sister-wives to Ranma."
Genma buried his face in his hands. "Soun will never go along with this."
Ke Lun smiled. "Soun… is being dealt with even now."
0 0 0 0 0
Soun Tendo wasn't sure he understood everything exactly, but it seemed to him that incredible fortune had smiled on him. He beamed down at the empty cup of sake, and Tao-Ching refilled it.
"Let me shee–see if I got thish straight." Soun smiled. "I scheld–sealed up my old bastard– oops! Master and the Amaschons want to al–ally with my– my family?"
Tao-Ching nodded. "And the Saotomes."
"And the Schow– and the schow– and them. Scho Ranma's gotta marry thish Schampoo to scheal the deal?"
"But he's still marrying my lil' girl too?"
"Yes. Amazon law allows multiple wives, and as the Saotomes are from a old Samurai family, he is technically allowed more than one wife. I've pulled some strings to make sure no-one in authority will raise a fuss. Legally Akane will be listed as his wife in Japan, and Shan Pu his mistress, while in China that will be reversed."
Soun nodded wisely and drained his sake. "Gatcha. Scho why go to Chi– China."
"So that Akane may be betrothed to Shan Pu."
"Right." Soun smiled again as Tao-Ching refilled his cup. "My lil' girl beat her up. Scho they gotta get married too!" He drained his refilled cup and fell over.
Tao-Ching looked down at the unconscious man. "That went rather well."
0 0 0 0 0
"There is nothing to discuss, Genma." Nodoka said firmly as she and Genma got dressed for the ceremony. "Your ten years are up, and I have decided you have fulfilled your promise. I have a son who is a man among men, even when he is a woman. He is not to blame for his curse. You are." She sighed.
"But honey–" Genma began, but stopped when Nodoka drew an inch of steel.
"No excuses, Genma! You've done so little right in your life that your mistakes are all anyone remembers! My family still thinks I am mad for marrying you! This ten year training trip was all that kept Father from disinheriting me! Even I had lost faith in you. For all that you hated what your master had done to you, you were becoming just like him!"
Genma had the grace to look shamed as Nodoka continued. "But you did it, Genma. Your blundering, disaster prone existence wrought something wonderful. Our Son! Genma, our son will inherit the Saotome family fortune, and its estates and titles, all because your blunders and your desperate ploy to seal up your master made this alliance with the Amazons possible. Father has agreed to this alliance, so Ranma will be adopted into the Amazon clan and he will marry Shan Pu, and because of it, the Saotomes will gain common cause with the Hibikis, because Tao-Ching Hibiki is an adopted Amazon and Shan Pu's cousin. Akane will marry Ranma and Shan Pu, bringing the Tendos into the alliance as well, and unless I've misread things, gain us another tie to the Hibiki's if Tao-Ching weds Nabiki Tendo. Father is overjoyed at the situation, because the Amazon's diplomatic connections gives him a tax free trade route into China, and will allow Saotome Shipping to undercut all his competitors. He even forgave me for marrying you! And I– I have a son again." She slid the katana back in. "And a husband who, despite his flaws, I was once very much in love with. I have waited ten long years for you to prove yourself, Genma. Despite everything, you have proven you can raise a son to a nobility which you hide so well in yourself. You have proven your worth as a father, but only time will tell if you can prove yourself to me as a man."
Genma looked down at his feet, for once in his life, truly ashamed.
"There is nothing more to discuss." Nodoka said finally. "You will attend our son's betrothal, and our daughter-in-law's betrothal, and you will smile, and make pleasant noises and you will show everyone how happy it all makes you, because you are his father, and that is what fathers do. Show me that somewhere in there is still the man I once loved."
Genma nodded. "Yes, Nodoka," he said quietly as he bowed and turned away, yet before he had quite turned, Nodoka saw something which gave her hope for her husband, and opened a crack in the wall she had built around her heart.
She had never before seen him cry…
0 0 0 0 0
"How did this mess ever happen?" a recovered Akane asked Kasumi as they were preparing for the ceremony. "I finally admit to myself and Ranma that I like him as a girl as much as a guy, and 'poof' I'm going to be engaged to a girl who's a girl full time! A girl I barely know, who's also supposed to be engaged to Ranma! And to top it off, the one girl I am in love with won't marry Ranma, or me, because she's convinced that doing so will only lead to misery because she doesn't like guys, and who just happens to be the adopted sister of the girl I am supposed to marry! WHY ME?"
Kasumi didn't have an answer. "At least you know that if Zhu Shu loves her enough to be her sister, Shan Pu must be a nice person."
"Oh, I have enough of Zhu Shu's memories of her to know she's a nice person, nice enough Zhu-chan seriously contemplated accepting her offer to be a sister-wife. But not enough to understand her! I looked into her eyes, Kasumi! Until the last minute, she was ready to kill me! Only her love for Ranma and Zhu Shu stopped her!"
"Yet you pleaded for her life." Kasumi noted.
Akane flounced on the bed. "I– I had to. She's Zhu Shu's sister. Zhu Shu herself told you what would happen if she had to watch one of her friends die." Akane said quietly. "She's spent all this time bringing me and Ranma closer and getting me to realize my preferences just so that this could happen!" Akane sighed. "If I didn't love her so much… I could kill her for doing this to me!"
"You don't really mean that, Akane." Kasumi chided. "And can you really say that bringing you and Ranma together, for whatever reason, is really a terrible thing?" Kasumi put her hand on Akane's shoulder. "Everything she's done has been for someone else, Akane. She's sacrificed her own heart in the hopes that you could be happy… with both Ranma and Shan Pu."
Akane looked at Kasumi's kind face. "I know." she sighed. "That's part of why I'm so frustrated at the whole thing. I know what she's done. I know that she started the whole thing so that Shan Pu and Ranma could be married and so that I could be part of that too. I– I just never expected it would be so soon."
"Your betrothal to Shan Pu will make her happy. She's worked so hard to see something like this happen." Kasumi said gently.
"That's the main reason I am doing it, though gods know I wish it were Zhu Shu instead." She sighed and looked at the formal kimono on the bed. "You know, I never got a formal engagement. How does she rate?"
0 0 0 0 0
"I hate formal garb." A once more male Ranma said. "And I hate formal ceremonies." He frowned at his Samurai topknot and sighed. He pulled it straight again before tightening the dragon's hair.
"You look very nice in it, dear." his mother commented. "Very Samurai. Now fix your swords." She went back to hemming the ankles of his outfit.
Ranma glared at his sword. The katana and wakazashi were crooked. He sighed again and straightened them too. "I still don't get this. I thought she wanted to kill me, but you say she's been hunting me down just to marry me, so now Granddad's made a deal with the Amazons to marry me off to her."
"There's more to it than just that, dear. Your father and Mr. Tendo did something that the Amazons considered enough of a service to them that they were willing to make a formal alliance with the Saotomes and the Tendos. The elders came to Tao-Ching Hibiki to discuss how to approach them to arrange the alliance and he took them to your grandfather. Your grandfather saw an advantage to accepting the alliance. Your betrothal and marriage is a separate affair. You defeated Shan Pu in combat. Under Amazon law, that makes you her husband. Father is following Amazon law as a token of good faith. He thinks your having two wives is a sign of virility and he also believes that you must fulfill your duty to the Saotome clan. The arrangement with the Tendos was made before your grandfather decided that Genma was a grave mistake on my part, and whether he regretted allowing the agreement to be made, your grandfather never goes back on his word. This marriage to Shan Pu is also something he sees as being honor bound to do because of the alliance."
"But dad said gramps thinks the Chinese are barbarians, and he still calls Tokyo 'Edo'. Why does he want this alliance?"
"You are young yet, Ranma. There is still much time left for you to learn the politics your elders play. Your grandfather sees an advantage; that is all you must know for now. And you really should call Father 'Grandfather.' He hates rudeness, son."
"And that's another thing I'm having trouble getting used to. I mean it's great to know you're still alive and all, but why haven't you written or something?"
"That you will have to take up with your father, son. I have every letter he has sent me in the last ten years, and I have written him whenever I knew where he was."
"So pop knew you were alive? I'm going to kill that panda!"
"You shall do no such thing, Ranma. Whatever you may do while sparring is one thing son, but deliberately hunting down your father with murder on your mind is my job."
Ranma gave her a startled glance. "Um…"
"I'm joking, son. Though our ancestors know I've been tempted often enough since he took you on that training trip. I have missed you so much!" She reached around Ranma's legs and hugged him for a long moment as Ranma's face grew red with embarrassment.
Nodoka sat back to continue working on the hem. "A man shouldn't be embarrassed when his mother displays affection."
"I'm just not used to it, mom. I mean, I just found out you even still existed a little while ago, and it was in a rather embarrassing manner."
"Dear, it's rather manly of you to have been with your future wife. Have you spied on her in the bath?"
"A healthy interest in females is a very manly trait, Ranma."
Ranma blinked. "So you're not mad about… um…"
Ranma blushed. "Geez, mom. You don't have to be so blunt about it."
"Ranma, the fact that your fiancée desires you is a sign of manliness. That she's intelligent enough to think about the dangers of pregnancy before you are married shows she's a worthy woman who will uphold your honor. That you were both female at the time is beside the point."
"Man, I would have figured anyone would have freaked out."
Nodoka gave him a raised eyebrow. "I would be, had you been male. While I wish grandchildren, son, you must be properly married to ensure they are legitimate. I will not have you destroying our family name, Ranma. No matter how manly it is too sow your wild oats, one should not do so with the intended bride. No, until the day you are married, you should not take that risk. That is what a mistress is for. However, due to the circumstances of your curse, that won't be a problem so long as you only do so while female. "
She finished the hem and stood up to examine the entire outfit. "Ah. Now you look like a man!"
"So long as no-one spills water on me." Ranma grumped.
"If they do, I have a formal Kimono for you." Nodoka smiled.
Ranma raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm still surprised you are taking my curse so well. I never would have believed Pop if he had told me he had made that promise to you."
"He did. And I fully intended on making you carry it out too. One Genma in the Saotome line is bad enough. Had he made you a carbon copy of him, it would have broken my heart, but I would have had to redeem my family's honor, son. I heard you in the garden before Shan Pu and Ke Lun joined me. Your words made me proud of you. You acted nobly in asking Zhu Shu to marry you in an attempt to make both her and Akane happy. You accepted her refusal with dignity. In all ways, you were a gentleman. Beyond that, you have faced your curse and made a decision to make the best of it. A strong man accepts what he cannot change son. A lesser man rails against it. Your curse would break many men, yet you have learned to accept it, and that makes me proud. It is no shame for you to be female at times, Ranma. Like a Kabuki player, it is but a mask. Underneath, it has not made you less of a man, indeed, your choice to learn more about being a woman shows you have enough confidence in your masculinity to explore your femininity. All people posses both yin and yang, my son, you simply posses the ability to display both equally. If you can learn to balance your male and female sides, you will become a better man for it. In all ways, this shows that you will be a man like no other… And to me, that shows that you will be far more than I ever expected when your father took you off on his training trip."
Ranma gulped. "Um-gee… Thanks mom."
"However, the verdict is still out on your father." she looked grim. "And if I ever find you playing geisha to anyone other than your fiancées…"
Ranma shivered at the unspoken threat.
0 0 0 0 0
"I've missed you, Zhu Shu." Shan Pu said as the other girl was helping her with her dress for the ceremony.
"I've missed you too, Shan Pu. If you had been here, maybe I wouldn't have come so close to betraying you."
"You never did, Zhu Shu. I didn't hear all of what you said to Ranma, but Great-grandmother said you told him of your love but would not marry him."
"I could not have said no a second time. I had resisted as far as my strength would go. Had he kissed me or asked me again, I would have gone to him, Shan Pu." Zhu Shu said sadly.
"And where would the betrayal have been in that? I have asked you to be my sister-wife, and from your own words, it seems my other sister-wife would welcome you as well, and you, she. Must I propose to you again?" Shan Pu looked at Zhu Shu challengingly.
"Please, I have no more strength for refusals." Zhu Shu whispered. "My heart is too divided to choose…" She sank to the bed. "And I do not want to destroy those I love."
"That's what I just don't understand, Zhu Shu. Why do you feel you must choose? If you accept, you will have all three of us!"
"No." Zhu Shu shook her head. "If I accept, in the end, I will have none of you… and I will destroy your happiness in the process." She turned away. "My head knows what my heart does not want to accept. I love Ranma, yes, and at this moment, I am in love with him. But that will fade. As much as I want him, as a woman I still feel nothing! He could take me, and make love to me, and I would never deny him, but I have no passion for him." she sobbed. "I feel… nothing. I could hide that from him. I know all the ways to make him feel desired as a man… but I would be living a lie. My heart yearns for him, Shan Pu, but my body makes no response save those I have been trained to give."
She turned her tear streaked face to Shan Pu. "Akane makes my every sense burn at her touch, you can make my heart flutter, but gods help me, as much as I love him, I cannot burn for Ranma. Sooner or later he would learn, I could not live the lie forever, and he will come to resent the fact he can never do for me what you or Akane could do. It would gnaw at us both till love became hate. I do not want to hate him, Shan Pu. I want to spare him that, and you and Akane too. It is better for you all if I find another who can fulfill my quest, a man who loves me, and will father my children, but whom I do not love. It will hurt us both less when he eventually goes out to seek the passion I cannot give him." She shivered as she hugged herself.
Shan Pu cupped her face. "You paint such a bleak future for yourself, sister. Is there no way for you to achieve happiness?"
"Only if I forsake Honor." Zhu Shu whispered
"I do not accept that, Zhu Shu." Shan Pu said quietly. "I will never accept that. There must be some way."
Zhu Shu looked away. "Perhaps… but it will not be today. Today, you become what you should have always been… what I have striven so hard to see."
"But at what cost to yourself, Zhu Shu?" Shan Pu asked softly. "At what cost to you?"
0 0 0 0 0
The limousine pulled up to the Tendo dojo in silence. The chauffeur got out and opened the rear door for an elderly gentleman in formal garb as a Daimyo. "We have arrived at the address you gave me, Master Saotome." the man said as he bowed.
The elder Saotome nodded. "Yes, my grandson's betrothal is to be here, as the formal conclusion to the alliance. Thank you, Hiromi. I will call for you when the ceremony is over." He straightened his swords as the chauffeur bowed and moved to stand at attention by the car door, then stepped forward to meet Tao-Ching at the entrance to the dojo.
"Greetings, Saotome-sama. I trust you are in good health."
"I'm fine Hibiki. Is everything prepared?"
"Hai." Tao-Ching confirmed with a slight bow. "We were awaiting only your arrival to begin."
"Good. Maybe this warrior cousin of yours will make an honorable man out of my grandson. His father is worthless, and I must confess, I've feared for Ranma. Your showing up was the best news I've had about the boy in ten years."
"I, too, was happy at my cousin's good fortune. Warriors of Ranma's caliber are rare. Shan Pu could not have been beaten by a lesser man."
"Ah yes. The Amazon laws. Genma has a knack doesn't he?"
"We are fortunate it worked in our favor this time."
"Indeed we are my boy, indeed we are." The elder Saotome turned to the door. "Well, shall we go and formalize this fortuitous happening?"
Tao-Ching bowed and followed him through the door.
0 0 0 0 0
The ceremonies went smoothly, other than a lot of nervousness on Ranma's part. Fortunately, he didn't have to say much. The elders were old hands at not giving men the chance to screw things up. Ranma just had to sit and accept his betrothal, saying yes at the appropriate spots.
Once it was over, and the elder Saotome had departed, everyone breathed a sigh of relief…
Until, that is, Akane had found Zhu Shu's formal outfit on her bed untouched, and some of her clothes gone.
Everyone ransacked the house, but no trace of her could be found until Kasumi called from the dojo. They piled into the room to find Kasumi sitting before a sword stand set beneath the shrine. On the stand sat both of Zhu Shu's swords, minus ribbons. They faced in opposite directions and from them hung the fine silver chain that held the Dragon signet ring Kasumi was staring at tearfully. "She left the most important things she owned…" Her voice choked off.
Akane dropped to her knees beside her sister. "But why? Oh, gods no… you don't…" Horror filled her eyes. "Oh please no." she whispered, her thoughts filled with Zhu Shu's despair.
"Calm your fears, child." Ke Lun said from the doorway. "She would not have left her weapons here if she had gone to die. Can you not see? She could have made no more sincere a promise that she will return." She looked around the faces depending on her for hope. "Her heart needs time to sort itself out. Give her that time." She hopped forward to lay a hand reverently on the blades. "When it is time, she will return." She traced along the delicate carving of the dragon along the blade, so faint as to be just visible. "Do not fear for the Dragon, my child… She will be back."
Authors Note: and so concludes Book One. Zhu Shu's adventures continue in Tears of a Dragon Book Two: The Dragon's Child. Can Zhu Shu find a solution to her divided heart, and what dastardly plots await in China? The answers await…