Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2, and all its characters are not my property.
Author's Note: Welcome to my first fanfiction! I hope that you're as pleased to read it as I was to write it. Unlike a very large number of Ranma 1/2 fics, I've chosen to focus the spotlight on characters outside the main cast to give myself a bit more wiggle room with their characters. Easy way out? Sure, but I am enjoying the way things are going. This is something of an AltUniverse fic, with the vast majority of changes affecting the Musk Dynsaty and Jusenkyo. As a project designed to help me recover from a decade long writer's block, I must post often. Chapters will usually be fairly modest in length. My hope is to put out larger chapters for future fics, but not this one barring extenuating circumstances. So, yeah, have fun!
A Prince's Duty - Chapter 1: Setting Out
"Hindsight is a bitch", a tall figure clad head to toe in pristine silks complained to the wind while leaning over the ship's railing. Shanghai's harbour was rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the shore, now, and it looked likely to be some time before she and her companions would be returning. Brushing a stray lock of black hair back into her cowl, the Musk prince only wished that would be true. She reflected that her luck had not been terribly impressive for the rest of her journey, either, and thus a long delay was too much to hope for. Even before the shore was out of sight it was lost to Herb's fiery eyes; the prince was focused on remembering the throne room.
"Damn you, father." and Herb heard those words both as she whispered them today and as he had cried them out in protest almost four months ago.
"Damn you, father!" a broader, male Herb in tighter fitting silk robes of white and scale-patterned green bound to flexible golden epaulets yelled at the old king, who sat through the outburst without raising an eyebrow. Herb was no fool. He knew that his father was simply waiting for him to exhaust his rage, for surprise and fury to give way to confusion and resignation. He knew this because it was the way his father preferred their conversations to go, and the prince wondered whether he could overcome that tired pattern today. Seeing his furious expression in the expansive mirror behind his father's throne, pale, sweating, and clenching his jaw, some tiny dispassionate part of the heir to the Musk Dynasty's mind informed him that the odds were not in his favour.
Those servants who had not been swift enough to vacate the throne room in advance, busied themselves about cleaning the room's corners. A particularly cautious, though embarrassingly conspicuous man of Monkey heritage set about washing the outsides of the palace's windows after leaping out of one. Herb identified him as Cumin in that moment, and made a note to visit some unpleasantness upon him at their next meeting. An argument between Dragons was something to be avoided by all lesser beings, so said the histories; it was just unthinkably rude to look as though one were avoiding them.
Struggling to settle himself so as to hold onto a little anger for longer, Herb relaxed himself by cooling his own ki. Only a few heartbeats had passed since his violent entrance, and the only remaining outward sign of his fury was in his twitching ears. When he spoke again, his voice was both forceful and clear of unnecessary emotion. "Father, you have forbidden my teachers to instruct me and decreed that none might train with me. You have induced the cooks to throw to the ground and soil any food at hand on my approach, just as you have ordered that none might speak to, serve, aid, or accompany me." Herb's irritation was creeping into his voice once more at his father's complete lack of reaction A stone might have concerned itself more had he deigned to accuse it of the same. The prince plunged onward with a suppressed growl. "You have even sent away Lime and Mint, the companions you, yourself chose for me when I was but a child. I will know why."
The monarch so addressed merely shifted in his cross-legged position atop his ornately carved throne, before reaching for a small black teacup beside him. Herb watched in mounting frustration as his father lazily lifted the cup to his lips and sipped loudly. For an Octogenarian, the man had frighteningly good control. His son knew from experience that the king was growing no weaker, either. He felt a momentary pride that, while his line might not lead lives quite so extended as those of the amazons, at least they were never made to suffer the indignities of a deformed and twisted body. This did little to settle Herb's mood, though, and by the time his father had finished his extended sip the young man was suffering from a nervous tick in his left eye.
"Boy," the Dragon king began, his words coming forth slowly and deliberately, "I recall telling you that I intended for you to produce children. It is my hope that you will not now call into question your sire's memory." The old king's eyes hardened as he challenged his heir to deny the statement.
It took a moment for Herb to fully digest his father's words. When he did, he could feel the calm fleeing him, and was glad he had made no wagers on this conversation. Even still, he stubbornly continued, hoping against hope to finish without trying and failing to throttle the old bastard. His words came out clipped and with obvious frustration. "That was this afternoon." He could feel the anger rising even now.
The king only nodded briefly, then took another prolonged sip of tea before placing his cup back down on his throne's arm. "Yes, that sounds right. Now Herb, it should be clear to both of us why I am upset by your present activity. Specifically, your lack of activity." Far from sounding upset, there was obvious joy and humour in those words. No feature on the aged monarch's face changed, but he was laughing at Herb
The prince of the Musk could feel himself baring his fangs.
Herb was shaken from her recollections quite vigorously, catching the tail end of something her larger companion was saying. She still hadn't completely understood, but it had something to do with food. Herb quashed a sudden surge of fear at the large man's proximity.
Without turning to Lime, Herb brushed the large man's hand from her shoulder and took a few steps away from him. She could tell this hurt the man of the Tiger, but refused to allow closeness. Even her companions couldn't be allowed to know of her curse. It would make handling them very tedious indeed. She adamantly refused to acknowledge the other uncomfortable things it would be, aside from tedious
Her voice came out in a hush, the better to disguise its new pitch. "You have distracted me from important meditation, Lime. Why?" Herb hoped that Lime and Mint would both take her taciturn behaviour into account and stop trying to talk to her. The disguise fairly relied on them not finding anything particularly strange. One with Dragon heritage could only stretch the excuse of illness for so long before becoming highly suspect. Ever since Jusenkyo, Herb had gone from cursing the simplicity of the two young warriors to rejoicing in it. 'That is hardly the only thing that has changed drastically now, is it, Princess Herb'?
"The crew are having food!" Exclaimed the huge warrior, his feral, slitted eyes shining at the prospect of eating.
Relief that her companion was not too upset at her behaviour warred with caution for only a moment. "Very good," Herb said, "enjoy it. I will take my meal in my room. Dissuade the crew from disturbing me."
With her face safely obscured, Herb favoured the warrior with a fond smile. He and Mint were instrumental to the success of this plan. She needed someone to work to support the travel expenses, and it would be improper for a prince to do so, especially a prince doing her level best to disguise that it would be more appropriate to call her a princess.
Pushing thoughts of the curse from her mind, Herb strode past Lime and made her way below deck.
The alien sensation of being surrounded on all sides by metal eclipsed any strangeness magic had ever inflicted on the heir to the Musk Dynasty. The modern cities she had visited had been odd enough, but at least they had been open to the sky. These corridors and her room both were too small for Herb to practice her Dragon martial arts, and she dared not damage anything lest she be expected to forfeit what meagre funds she'd managed to raise for her quest. It was not natural to be so small and meek.
Passing by the dining area, Herb was pleasantly surprised that Mint was getting along well with the crew. 'It's little wonder. His lighthearted and easy-going demeanour would disarm anyone. And his dumb grin is just so damned cute.' A growing redness in her cheeks safely obscured by the cloth wrapped about her face, Herb stiffened and redoubled her pace toward the safety of her room, the entrance already in sight. The transformed prince rapidly opened the door, entered, and sealed herself within.
With practised self-control and extraordinary willpower, Herb passed the minutes until Lime came with her meal leaning back against the door rather than banging her head against a wall to more quickly drown out embarrassment with pain. She mechanically and wordlessly accepted the food, not so much as looking at the man. It was unnecessary for the sake of knowing of the concern displayed on his face, and unproductive for ridding herself of the unease that had rooted itself in her stomach.
Settling down to enjoy the first of several lonely meals aboard this ship, Herb hoped she could acquire proper attire to swim back. Once the curse was no longer locked, it would only be half as mortifying to reveal it. Herb mentally kicked herself for taking the Chiisuiton along to Jusenkyo for perhaps the fifth time that day; she had grown lax in her self-chastising.
Much to Herb's disappointment, the ship's cook fancied himself something of a chef. This resulted in an excellent meal that was too rich to eat more than half of before setting it aside. That had been one of the great shocks of the modern urban centres she'd been visiting. The thick gravies, rich broths, and incredibly sweet sauces had all gone a long way to upset Herb's stomach on her earliest visits. Even now, she doubted the night would pass without disturbance from the half-eaten beef and noodle something-or-other. The already rich noodles seemed to have been soaked in something unwholesome to worsen that state. At least the vegetables had been crisp and clean, once they had been liberated from the creamy sauce coating the top of them. 'I will speak to the chef in the morning. He will surely be willing to prepare some simpler dishes when asked. I won't suffer like this all the way to Japan.'
A course of action in mind to at least make this next leg of her adventure more agreeable, Herb confidently walked to the bathroom to get cleaned up. Despite the name, there was no proper bath. The Musk prince has mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it had been ages since she had relaxed properly and with no danger of someone walking in on her. On the other hand, apart from completely different fingers, was it really in her best interest to get more comfortable with this body, so different from her true form for all that it looked so alike? The Jusenkyo springs guide himself had been quite firm that hers was an enviably similar body to her true form's.
For all his years of training, for all the countless hours of honing his reflexes and mastering his instincts, nothing at all had prepared the young crown prince of the Musk Dynasty for the most traumatic three seconds of his young life.
It had been simplicity itself to capture the monkey. With it, he would be able not only to test a desperate theory that the Spring of Drowned Girl conferred extraordinary fertility, but also to gift the fool Cumin with a wife at once too inhuman to ever bring him joy, and too traditionally appropriate to be refused.
It had been a small bother to dismiss the worry that this action was too petty and cruel to execute. Herb needed to test this option to determine a possible solution to declining birth rates among the Musk, and the cowardly servant had been a prime contributor to the unsightly fury the prince had exhibited in front of his father; the noble intent and pettiness quite cancelled out on his hastily constructed moral scales.
There had been a brief delay to explain his scholarly intent and ancient heritage to the portly Jusenkyo guide. The man had been insistent that the Pools of Sorrow would ultimately bring only that, but could not long argue with the charismatic and powerful prince before showing him the way to the desired spring. Along the way, the guide had instructed Herb to follow in his footprints exactly, as the cursed springs were quite good at taking advantage of any opportunity to strike out at visitors.
It had been fairly challenging to pry the monkey's grip away from his own clothes, lift it overhead, and launch it into the Nyanniichuan. The monkey had exhibited all of the grappling competence and grip strength for which practitioners of its style were renowned for. Perhaps the monkey was a prime specimen and more of a favour for Cumin than Herb had originally intended. It was the way of a wise monarch to only mete out vengeance that a wise man could learn to thank him for.
Had not the young prince been so in awe at the sight of a voluptuous and entirely naked girl leaping from the water, it would have been as easy as his first task to avoid the spray of water surging behind her as she soared over his head. Had he not been reeling with shock as the change overtook him he would have at least seen the once-monkey miss her landing, tripping over the edge of the Chiisuiton and sending the ladle spinning into the air, even if he, now she had failed to dodge its payload. Had the new Musk princess not just suffered this series of events one after another in such a short span of time, she certainly would not have blacked out in shock.
A very disoriented Herb woke on a ground level mattress with a surprisingly comfortable pillow. She was in a cozy little cabin, was dry and warm, had lost all of her clothes, and was covered now only by a thin blanket. She was, based on knowledge acquired from scrolls and paintings on the subject, quite obviously a woman. This failed to produce an excited reaction within her, in fact, she felt more subdued than she had since her father's mad proclamation.
There was some small sound coming from beyond the closed door to the cabin. A plain white teapot sat on a simple grey cloth on an unremarkable wooden table. While it was clear someone lived in the cabin, there was no sign of decoration save a calendar with some dates highlighted.
Moments after Herb had begun taking in her environment, the door opened and the Jusenkyo guide entered, speaking to himself about terrible luck and tragic curses. It left her with the distinct impression that the man was practising, running through a routine he had mastered long ago.
Herb moved to a sitting position, careful to keep draped in the blanket. The process was far more challenging than she'd anticipated. "Guide to the Cursed Training Ground Jusenkyo, do I want to know why I am lying naked on your floor?" She had meant for the words to sound cold but threatening. They came out as something little more than a mumble. Enunciation was proving tricky.
"Ah, honoured visitor to Jusenkyo, a great trage-," the broad man had turned, already launching into his nasal speech only to find Herb scowling at him. Taking a moment to cough, the guide continued more normally. "The monkey you threw in splashed you, and your locking artifact hit you instead of it. You seemed in shock, then tipped forward into the spring. I fished you out, brought you here, and am now drying your clothes just out back."
Nodding dumbly, Herb tried to get to her feet but wound up sprawled back on the mattress. She tried to ask the guide what was going on, and was slurring her words badly. "Why do I feel this way? I can't get my balance, guide." It proved a sufficient challenge just to get the blanket back over her exposed breasts. That still failed to bother her too much, but it was curious and had to be off, somehow.
The guide was beside her, placing a steaming wooden cup on the ground before she'd even registered his movement from across the room. He was saying something, but it was getting harder to make sense of it, as though he was speaking through a gag. Knowing something to be the matter, Herb ran through a simple waking ki practise. It consisted of nothing more difficult than inflaming her ki reserves to go from the perfect placidity of sleep to violent activity in a heartbeat. Even this proved challenging, her ki simply did not burn at command, for some reason. Still, she was rewarded with her environment's sudden return to clarity.
"...time they blew up half my roof. No, now all recently cursed visitors get a cocktail of drugs to make them more passive until after the surprise of their condition wears off. I feel foolish for how many years it took me to start doing this. I'm saving a fortune in repairs, and most visitors are adapting better as well." The guide seemed to have stopped paying attention to her, and was speaking more to himself at this point. Herb considered letting that stand, but had not clawed her way back to full consciousness just to listen to the guide ramble, even if it would be so much easier.
Despite the difficulty, Herb returned to a sitting position. She smiled at the surprised look in the guide's eyes, and took that too as a minor triumph in a surprisingly bad day. This time, her speech was almost perfectly clear. "I don't need you to explain the reasons for your decision not to have your home destroyed time and again, guide. I must dress. It would not do to be seen this way." It was at that point she noticed the guide's eyes had drifted away from her own, and toward her now exposed breasts. Heat rising in her cheeks, the Musk prince lifted the sheets once again and glared darkly at the man.
To his credit, the guide quickly rose to his feet and turned away. He removed a full length mirror and a pole with a curtain attached from a nearby closet, then returned to where Herb sat. "I put these up in this corner of the room when my daughter comes to visit, some weekends. I will set up the curtain, and you can handle the mirror from your side." He paused to chuckle. "You are lucky, prince Herb of the Musk. You look very like yourself. The last visitor to fall into that pool lost nearly two heads of height, had his hair change colour from black to red, and had breasts too heavy to fit in his own hands." The curtain in position, the man had vanished, leaving Herb with the tea and a mirror.
A few sips of the warm and unsurprisingly low-quality beverage did wonders for Herb's recovered awareness. Standing steadily took a bit of time, but once she had it things rapidly became easier. Placing the mirror she'd been given against the wall and greeted a face with which she was fairly well acquainted, attached to a body she couldn't have known less about. Carefully brushing out the pink tail in her hair, untangling the black tresses, and straightening her white bangs, all from memory, she set about learning the rest. 'So, you are Herb, Prince of the Musk Dynasty until I can find the lost Kaisuifuu. You don't have much to live up to, at least. I hope my clothes dry soon so I don't have to explain this to Lime and Mint.' The Musk prince was already planning her return to at least part-time masculinity.
Closing Author's Note: This chapter hasn't got a lot of action. It doesn't even have much in the way of dialog. I hope to have future chapters contain a fair bit more of both. Hopefully you'll stay tuned for the next chapter, where Herb talks to someone for an extended period, and the voyage to Tokyo ends.
Please review this story; it's my first fanfic and I'd rather like to read your thoughts. If you liked it, let me know. If you hated it, let me know. If you got a really swell idea, didn't understand something, or want something looked at more closely, let me know. I can't promise I'll act on every review, comment, criticism, suggestion, piece of advice, etc..., but I know I'd benefit from seeing them all.