Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2, its characters, or its scenarios. If someone else goes through the correct paperwork, I won't even own the Original Characters and scenarios in here. I'm not liable to do much about either situation.

A Prince's Duty - Chapter 7: Making a Mess

"For the last time dad, I'm telling you, that jerk's going to be just fine." Akane was getting extremely tired of repeating herself, now that her father's worries had been keeping her from her studies for over an hour.

"Bu- but, the omens..." her father sobbed out, having temporarily – and blessedly – exhausted the fountain of tears he seemed to somehow carry within him at all times.

"Cologne herself even said she'd made sure Ranma would be safe. So quit making such a big deal about it."

"Still, how can we trust...?"

Irritation beginning to flare, the youngest Tendo daughter bit out a response that was a great deal less polite than could be expected. "She has as much reason as any of us to want him hurt, dad, and more reason than someone to want him back to normal."

Nabiki, in a rare show of sisterly solidarity, poked her head into the room with a raised eyebrow and tight, sardonic grin. "Hey, sis. Daddy still scared for his young bride-to-be?"

The Tendo patriarch's tears dried up immediately as he spun his head to see his middle daughter. "Nabiki, it's impolite to sneak up on your father when he's having a heartfelt discussion with one of your sisters." Just as quickly, he was back in tears and pleading dramatically with his youngest once more. "Oh, to be so mistrusted by my own children. You must know I would never try to steal your fiancé from you. It was a foolish joke meant to spur him on to greater heights, you must believe me!"

"Oh, my! Auntie Saotome will be so disappointed to learn that young Ranko has been abandoned already." In spite of herself, Akane nearly burst out laughing at the look her father cast towards his eldest, who'd just entered the doorway. With all the Shakespeare she'd read for the drama club just for the chance to play Juliet, she could almost hear the "Et tu, Kasumi?"

Every face in the room drained of colour at the next words spoken, though. "I'm sorry, the door was open and you were all speaking so loudly I wanted to make sure you knew I was here. Did I hear you right, Kasumi dear? Has some dishonourable young man walked out on your cousin?" Much to their grief, standing before the chattering Tendos was one Nodoka Saotome, coming by for another of her impromptu check-ins.

Smothering herself with her open biology textbook worked about as well as expected, but at least it let Akane cover her face enough to get her complaints straight. 'Just great. Ranma's gone and his problems still won't leave any of us alone. At this rate I'll never get ahead in my homework, and to top it all off, I'll bet that jerk is just having the time of his life bothering that strange girl with his perversions.'

"I'm tellin' ya, I ain't talkin' about it." Ranma shouted behind her as she stormed away from the lingerie store she had just escaped from. 'Not intact,' she noted, studiously avoiding fingering the straps of the bra she'd left wearing after an unprecedented amount of cajoling from one of the store clerks.

Only the absolute certainty that no one aside from Herb even suspected who she really was, and that she was acting oblivious to why Ranma would be upset about that part of their shopping trip, had kept the pigtailed girl from making an even greater scene in order to escape from the deeply shameful situation. It was one thing wearing one and hating it in order to trick and defeat Happosai, but wearing one and not hating it was getting into truly unsettling territory. 'And,' she reasoned while ignoring the questions posed by her new and quite possibly vengeful 'friend', 'a Man among Men probably doesn't wear girl clothes no matter how well they support his breasts.' Scrunching up her nose a bit, Ranma amended that thought. 'He definitely shouldn't have breasts to feel better supported, to begin with.'

Nearby, the Musk prince had finished trying to engage her in conversation, and was pretending that the entire matter of speaking to her wasn't all that appealing, anyway. It was something Akane did a lot of, but wasn't expected here. An impish grin crept onto the redhead's face. 'Oh. Right. Cologne got her to promise not to do anything serious to me.' She paused, 'Heh, like she could.' Some tiny seed of doubt attempted to make itself known to her, but that matter was quickly swept away and used as fuel for the greater emergent notion to make Herb regret the assumption of superiority that her agreement with the Chinese Amazon betrayed. Another irritant was that the old ghoul herself had also made that same assumption.

Her calculating stare passed over a pay phone, and Ranma knew just how she would start testing the strange girl's resolve. "Hey, Herb," Ranma called out. "I need to go check in with the Tendos. Give me a minute, kay'?" Without waiting for a response, she bounded off over to the device and fed it some change.

Kasumi was cheerful as usual when she answered the phone, her loud, clear greeting doing an astonishingly good job of making Ranma feel at ease. She returned the greeting, "Hi Kasumi. It's Ran-."

"Ranko!" The eldest of the Tendo sisters abruptly exclaimed, causing a buzz of worried, familiar voices to drift through the receiver to the Saotome. "It's wonderful to hear from you so soon. We were just talking about you." Kasumi, of course, sounded more stressed than wonderful, but that was neither here nor there.

'Mom's visiting,' she internally groaned. The only reason for the name of her alter ego to be brought up in the first place was to fool her mother into thinking she was the Tendos' cousin to prevent the revelation that Ranma was a girl – if only part-time – so that she didn't have to commit seppuku for failing in the idiotic promise her father had made that she would be a "Man among Men" when next she and her mother saw one another. Her father was pretty sure being a girl half of the time wasn't meeting one of the necessary criteria; being a girl all the time was a clear forfeit by even the most lenient standards. A woman who carried her family honour-blade and a seppuku pledge around with her wherever she went didn't strike Ranma as the sort to go with 'lenient'. Like too many of the other women in her life, Ranma's mother was a strange mix of kind, nutty, and terrifying.

Starting to get into character, the young martial artist raised her vocal register and cheered herself up by thinking about delicious free food. "Uh... of course Kasumi! Don't want to worry anyone, you know?" She followed that up by shooting Herb a glare for the funny look the dragon-girl was giving her, and asking slyly "do I wanna know what you were saying about me?"

"Of course nothing bad, cousin. Nabiki was just filling auntie Saotome in on your newest adventure. She was looking forward to seeing you."

"Maybe I should make sure all the details are right with Akane? And could I speak with auntie after I sort out that and some other stuff?"

Some of Kasumi's tension was gone when she said, "I think that's a very good idea," letting Ranma know she'd done as was expected.

Even as the receiver was passed along, Ranma heard her mother ask Kasumi, "is the poor dear doing well? She's such a sweet, bright young girl; how could her fiancé treat her with such disdain?"

Ranma blinked. 'Oh geez just what the hell crazy story did Nabiki come up with?'

There was no time to think, though, as the clearly frustrated and much-missed voice of Ranma's most official fiancée drifted to her ears. "Thanks for calling at such a great time, Ranko." The young redhead noted that that sounded a bit more like an accusation, rather than any species of thanks. "You'd be amazed at all the excitement you're missing out on here." Now that sounded like she was shiftlessly avoiding the general Nerima silliness. "I hope you aren't giving your prince charming too much trouble."

There was a problem. Also, Herb was looking at her like she'd grown a second head, or whatever crazy near-mythical creatures gave people dumb looks over. 'Stupid, weird Chinese tribals,' Ranma complained internally. She kept her peace, all the while thinking of the trouble the dragon-girl had caused her, rather than the other way around.

"Well, like Nabiki said, he's so beautiful even a girl might be jealous of his looks. It isn't any of my business, but try to watch what you do."

Something was really wrong, peace could keep itself. Whatever it was the middle Tendo sister had said was going to make life more difficult. It involved Ranko first being engaged to a boy, who apparently did something wrong, which led to her going off with Herb, who in this story was also a man for some reason or other. Akane was trying to explain what that was, but the act of explaining was angering her. It would be better just to play along with whatever her mother had planned than to deal with trying to make sense of whatever complicated and confusing girl emotion the tomboy was wrestling with. She absolutely wasn't irritated at the implication she might have reason to be jealous of the 'prince' absolutely failing to be inconspicuous about listening in on the conversation. She was better built, anyway.

"Look, Akane," Ranma said. "With everything going on right now, I'm gonna be gone for a while, and I need your help keeping up with school."

"Fine," Akane huffed out. "What do you need done?"

"I'm gonna call now and then to see what I should be reading up on, and I need you to send assignments and notes and stuff to a hot spring resort pop and I've stayed at. It's just outside Kamiyamasaka, way out west."

"Wow. Guess it's far away, huh." Some hesitancy edged into the distant girl's voice. "Umm, listen, about what I did, earlier..."

Ears perking up, Ranma put on a cocky grin she wasn't sure whether she regretted the Tendo's inability to see. "Uh huh?"

"Well, I wanted to say that I wa-"

Whatever might have been said just then was lost when the streets turned to panic at the sight of a massive flare of green light in the hills the tiny urban area was nestled against. Ranma knew it for the perfected form of Ryoga's "Lion's Roar Bullet", Herb clearly knew it for an obscenely massive Ki attack. The crowd? The crowd probably thought it was a bomb, and would be some time in recovering from the associated panic.

Saying goodbye would have to wait, since Herb screamed out, "our camp!" before surging toward the explosion; her movement was in exactly the opposite direction of most pedestrian traffic.

"Herb, hey- hey wait!" Ranma called, even as the girl with trichromatic hair took a superhuman leap over the press of bodies. Dropping the receiver and taking to the air to follow, her eyes widened measurably when, instead of landing to take off again, the dragon princess just kept going. She wasn't jumping. Herb was actually flying. The pigtailed martial artist pushed disappointment over a lost chance to speak with her mother down in her rush to follow, excitement at the possibility of learning that kind of technique, and fear for Ryoga's life. She just had to touch down on the ground and push off periodically like a chump to do it.

"Is no fair Xian Pu no can go with beloved in time of needs!" The violet-haired Joketsuzoku Champion pleaded with her great-grandmother once more, her words continuously falling on deaf ears, much to her frustration. 'Can she not see how hard it is to get a minute alone with Ranma in this madhouse? How can I hope to convince him to come back to our tribe if we don't say more than a few sentences to each-other every week?' Xian Pu tried to force her thoughts on her elder with an angry glare and annoyed pout. Being limited to speaking Japanese since her shameful return home after failing to kill the outsider woman who turned out to be a cursed man was starting to grate on her nerves.

The sole indication that her great-grandmother had heard her amidst the activity and noise of preparing several dishes at once was the 'closed' sign which appeared in her hands. Sure that this would mean a chance to convince the elder of the foolishness of letting Ranma go off alone with the Musk, Xian Pu grinned and skipped around the restaurant. Quickly putting up the sign, she then switched on the recording feature for the telephone, and finally, was only left the 'hard' part. Steeling herself bravely, she bumped into Mu Tsu. Proper angle of incidence and an outstretched hand ensured that the only lost item was a glass of iced tea poured directly onto her childhood friend turned besotted fool, now foul. "Aiyah!" Xian Pu exclaimed for the benefit of the half-blind martial artist duck, who was presently trying to extricate himself from his voluminous robes while tucking them and their contents under his wings somehow. "Clumsy Mu Tsu should watch where is going. Xian Pu finish serving guests, so silly duck-person can go get changed and handle last deliveries."

And just like that, she had escaped the possibility of delays via long deliveries. Of course, the matter of serving tables strategically remained. It was necessary to be an efficient and gracious hostess so that there was no call for any customer complaints, but it was also necessary to avoid being any more charming than that, which might distract the guests from eating, and most importantly, leaving in a timely fashion. The last proved particularly difficult given how beautiful and talented Xian Pu was, but her perseverance was rewarded by the departure of the last satisfied customer. A flicked wrist to lock the door and the excited Amazon was racing to the kitchen to get an explanation from the tired-looking elder.

"Anything is wrong, great-grandmother?" In a hurry to receive an explanation or no, failing to be polite to an elder was an excellent way to be presented with 'creative' training regimens. How Ranma kept on not noticing that continued to baffle her. That he and the lost boy survived their indiscretions was something of a twisted badge of honour.

Never one to miss an opportunity to instill pomp and theatrics into everything she did, the Amazon elder spent several more minutes in dead silence, preparing a pot of tea for the two of them to share over a suitably embellished and drawn-out, roundabout answer to the very simple question posed to her. 'I wonder if it would be too obvious to bring popcorn and request intermissions?'

Ku Lon was in fine form that day, and she meandered from topic to topic, ranging from ancient Nichiezu history, to legal policies, to special techniques, to perverted breeding practises, to one-upmanship, and all through the range in different orders several times over. The thought crossed Xian Pu's mind that the elder might like what she thought was the sound of her own voice. 'If I could just convince the middle Tendo girl... Nabiki, right? If I could get her to lend me a tape recorder for a day, I might just cure Great-Grandmother of that delusion.' The young champion feigned riveted attention all the while, gasping, nodding, shaking her head, and making proud gestures at appropriate times.

"So," she said, slowly. "We not going with husband because he is with dangerous animal-lover perverts who is enemies?" Xian Pu saw the staff her elder carried blur into motion, but wasn't yet fast enough to do more than anticipate the explosion of stars across her vision, and the ringing in her head. She started pouting childishly, hoping to evade further reprimands by using the old hag's soft spot for the young against her.

Elder Ku Lon merely snorted, before giving her a second much softer, if just as loud, crack on the skull. Her tone was serious now, devoid of the air of mystery she so often carried on in. "This isn't a game, granddaughter, and there is nothing trivial about the threat the Musk pose. Yes, they have resorted to abominable breeding practices, but the results are undeniably effective. I let young prince Herb take your husband along with her because he is too foolish to convince not to fight, and because I was able to secure her promise not to do him any great harm, and lastly..."

Xian Pu heard her great-grandmother trailing off, and could see her weighing how much, if anything at all, she wanted to share of her last reason. 'She coddles me too much. Am I not village champion? If I don't hurry her along she'll think of some way to brush this all off and I'll never know what's so important about my not going with Ranma.' Her thoughts ordered, she prompted her elder for a proper explanation, tone respectful but adamant. "Xian Pu must know why if is to make wise decisions on own. What things worries Elder Ku Lon so much?" Despite the sour look the ancient woman gave her, she kept her expression stern and her head unbowed.

"Young people never know to leave well enough alone, and the greater part of trouble to their elders," Ku Lon muttered, before releasing a sigh deeper than her body looked to have space to contain. "Very well, Xian Pu, young Champion of Joketsuzoku village. You will know the true horror of the Dragon Princes. Theirs is a life so powerful, so absolute, that it defies the existence of all else." The old woman suddenly broke into a wicked grin from ear to ear, cackling a little. "You will also learn about our detailed and long political relationship with the Musk, since you are interested in acquiring some wisdom."

Xian Pu grew to regret her decision to leverage maturity against her great-grandmother. While the old woman didn't shy from describing the dangerous power the royal family of the Musk inherited from their inhuman ancestor, the vast majority of her interest, attention, and description was about politics. The lavender-haired Amazon hoped she stayed in character while struggling to follow the very complicated Japanese being used. "Never question the Elders. If the ancestors smile on you, they will tell you it is not your business. If you are not so fortunate, they might just give you a proper answer". Maybe I am as dim as these Japanese say if I can't learn from such a frank proverb after all these years.'

Like countless times before, the battle raged on. Fist rose to meet fist, guards and strikes were exchanged with uncanny precision at unfathomable speeds, lunges and grabs were turned aside without fail, and every escape manoeuvre was gracefully countered. These perfectly matched and preternaturally gifted foes had collided over a bell ago. One could not surrender, and so it fell to the other to concede that there was nothing more to be gained from their conflict. The defeated party gave the victor a nod even as it faded from his mind's eye, before turning to the man he'd been hoping would leave if he took long enough. 'Never any such luck,' he chided himself, motioning for the other to speak, and careful to remain placid in spite of the interruption.

Wiping sweat from his wide, jutting forehead, the pest, a middle-aged ram clansman of some status nervously stuttered out his explanation. "Ki- King Tarragon he, he c- commands," he paled slightly before continuing in more of a hurry, "th- those are hi- his words! He commands that the Pr- Prince Turmeric a- attend him. Immediately." His piece said, the warrior, and servant of the Musk's royal family collapsed against a nearby wall, his will completely exhausted.

Turmeric's face contorted into a scowl with which it was quite familiar. It was one very nearly reserved for, and almost perpetually worn when dealing with the present Musk king. To relieve some of the pressure his displeasure was having on the frightened servant, Cabbage, he gave a brief nod and strode from his chambers. Entering the adjacent archives would normally have put him at ease but for his current destination. "Well," he grumbled, "it isn't as if I haven't at least made the tyrant stew for a while."

The route to the throne room was painfully familiar to prince Turmeric by now. He had walked there and back ten thousand times before, and knew he would repeat the procedure ten thousand times more. His mood soured further when he saw a business and bustle that had been uncommon in the palace since prince Herb and his retainers had finished their studies under imported language tutors, and just as uncommon before their arrival.

He clucked his tongue in further irritation at the memory. 'That was Anise's fool notion. Imagine, that the barbarians in the world beyond the Middle Kingdom should be important enough to bother learning to make sense of their vulgar tongues. As though understanding the chirping of the Iron Men wasn't enough of a concession! Terrible to think ill of the deceased, but when I follow him I'll have to ask Anise if it was just some tumour-induced madness. That is if the deceased go somewhere they can ask one-another things.'

The palace's halls themselves were lined with portraits of ancestors, an almost farcical display of vanity from his perspective. They looked out at him with faces that, barring a few fine differences and imperfections, may as well have been cast by a mirror. 'We look enough alike, one prince might as well have just had a few hundred done over his life and saved the rest of us the trouble.' Scornful observation aside, the reminder of his appearance caused Turmeric to take a moment to settle his trichromatic hair back in place after the earlier activity. The large tail had been moved slightly off-centre during his shadow-boxing.

It certainly would not do to give Tarragon anything to talk about aside from whatever banal demand he had; his skill in wasting hours and exhausting tempers would certainly be preserved in legend following his demise. 'May it be after his brat has come of age, and had a child of his own.' Much as Tarragon was his least-favourite person, Turmeric would rather see his reign last until the sun fell from the sky one final time than to have to replace him.

His walk to the throne-room took only a few short minutes, and before the doors were arrayed two of the palace's three guards, and all five of its scholars, older Musk warriors of an intellectual bent who'd lost either the will or the capacity to fight to the depredations of time. All seven of the assembly had their ears pressed to the doors and were paying minimal attention. The gross breach of decorum only particularly bothered Turmeric in its presenting an inconvenience to him, but if he wanted to get those doors open and himself introduced in a hurry he'd be required to put a stop to it. Loosing his control of both Ki and temper, the put-upon prince stormed up to the doors. The effects on those assembled before them were immense. Three of the scholars hopped away from him, and the guards snapped to attention, pulling the doors open and sending the remaining scholars stumbling to avoid falling in his path.

"Prince Turmeric of the Musk, to see King Tarragon, master of the practitioners of the Shokei Fist and supreme Lord of the Musk!" The scruffy wolf clansman's shouted introduction betrayed not a hint that he had been ignoring his post only seconds ago; it was to his great credit that he was only shaking below the waist, Turmeric had been going for intimidation. Still, when he crossed the threshold the doors were tugged closed in much haste to put a solid barrier between the frightened men without and him, within. It was something like a child shrouding himself in a thick blanket to ward off the monsters that stalk the night: not terribly effective for its main purpose, but good about buffering flagging confidence and courage.

Turmeric's intended furious chastisement of his king for the discourteous orders he'd given to his servant in requesting the presence of a dragon prince with such an impolite message died in his throat. That was because the room was occupied by more than just Tarragon and his remaining personal attendant. In fact Cumin, the overly talkative ape clansman, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in front of the throne a handsome woman in her middle years with long, thick, teal hair, and a vacant, blank expression was folded in half over a staff that was keeping her from falling to the ground. Said staff itself was being held in the bony grasp of what the prince could only presume was a high-ranking demon in some hell of shrivelled, dried-out, diseased corpses. The demon had turned its enormous, milk-white eyes on him, and he couldn't will himself to look away.

"Ahh, good, good! I was expecting you, prince Turmeric." Said prince's eyes tore free from the dead thing's and saw that the King wore the vicious little smile that he reserved for those times he was able to sate his perverse love of manoeuvring others into the most uncomfortable situations he might. And, having lost the initiative completely, he was going to have to listen to the tyrant gloat.

"Please, before anything else, I simply must introduce you to some recently arrived guests in Musk lands, from the Nichiezu, of all people!" Tarragon tapped a purely decorative fan closed on his armrest, then bobbed it first at the demon, then at the suspended woman. "This fine woman who so captured your attention is Elder Mao Suashi, and the young lady she would be less required to keep supported if you would master yourself is Cuima Rin Ci. Were those pronounced correctly, Elder?"

Restraining himself more fully, Turmeric saw the younger woman recover both awareness and motor control, although she was still shaking quite badly, at that. Regretting that the situation he was in prevented him from apologizing, he instead turned his attention more towards the demon he now knew to also be a woman. 'Were Tarragon not here, I could at least recover from this embarrassing situation. By my ancestors... I will have to submit to Ru Mai's gloating if we are rejoined after death. Mao Suashi has proven me wrong about her being the least attractive woman under the sky. Whoever would have imagined?'

"Yes, that was correct, your Highness," the ancient woman croaked out as she wet sand-dry lips with a thick, mottled tongue that reminded him of a particularly loathsome worm.

It took long enough to look away from the sight that the king had started up again, his self-satisfaction bordering on glee. "Yes, honoured Elder and Warrior of a once-rival people, my grandfather, here, is our most devoted historian. He should be; he's spent more of his years reading through and copying our nation's past than any other living Musk has even had. And, prince Turmeric, per an agreement made by prince Herb with the Nichiezu Elder Ku Lon, you are to travel with these two to the village of Joketsuzoku, where you will exchange the last seven hundred or so years of our history and current laws with those of your hosts. Doesn't that sound like great fun?"

All truth told, it sounded like the ideal vacation away from Tarragon, but at the same time, not only did he have grounds to deny the order, but defying the king was seeming like a perfect, if petty, revenge for the unpleasant scenario which had just been orchestrated. "I am a warrior in perfect health, my king," he stated icily, eyes narrowed and back straight. "This mission of yours is suited to one who has retired. His majesty should have little trouble finding such a one. Will that be all?"

"Not retired? Hmm, for all the time you spend among the histories I thought for certain you'd just neglected to tell me." The king's immediate, plainly amused response told Turmeric that this, too, had been part of the game. Tarragon proceeded to wave the rejection away as he might some flying pest. "Well, I'd hate to have disturbed you for no reason, so it's perhaps for the good that I also had something I needed to speak to one of our warriors about. We can discuss this once our guests have left."

Turning in his throne, the ruler of the Musk addressed the Nichiezu warmly. "Ladies, you will find Fennel just outside. While not prince Turmeric's match, he has no grounds to object to my order. Oh! Is young Cuima Rin Ci well? Have Bay fetch her some tea to help restore her before you depart." A quick tug at a cord behind a tapestry depicting the clans that had founded the Musk meeting over some fermented drink or other caused a tiny bell to chime beyond the throne-room's doors. The guards quickly opened them.

The tiny, deformed elder pressed her desiccated lips together into a forced smile, nodded her head, and then helped the other younger woman with her to stumble from the room. Turmeric let none of the strain of failing to help them show as he continued to stand at attention before the tyrant. At the door, Mao Suashi gave her own parting words. "The reunion between our people has been most fortuitous. Oh, and the prince Herb is free to visit our village at any time."

The two men rested in tableau, Tarragon leaning forward in his simple throne casting a wide, insincere smile at the departing women, while Turmeric stood, frowning as he tracked their progress by the gradual motions of the king's eyes. Only when the doors had been shut firmly behind the departing pair did motion return to them. Without preamble, the tyrant rose from his seat and walked over to the room's window, a clear invitation to more informal discussion. "The amazons certainly got your attention, didn't they grandfather?"

Unwilling to let that be the topic they dealt with, Turmeric only grunted before making his own observation, still rooted to the spot he had stood in since taking note of the Nichiezu. "That invitation extended only to your son."

"It did, didn't it?" When Tarragon's affected surprise failed to yield further information, he continued on as though he'd merely been mulling the thought over himself. Perhaps he had been, at that. "I wonder what he might have done to so impress them. You missed the earlier parts of our meeting, but the elder had nothing but praise for him."

That got a reaction out of Turmeric, if only widened eyes and honest confusion in his voice. "Herb?"


Brow knotting, Turmeric was forced to respond with an uncertain, questioning solution. "Perhaps he was not absolutely terrible to them, as you were just now?"

"Herb!" The king's genuine shock was tinged with amusement at that, and he turned a derisive smile on the substantially older prince of the Musk to further illuminate how worthy of consideration he found that possibility.

Feeling a little silly for the suggestion, but unwilling to get embroiled in an argument on its merit, Turmeric pressed on. "He might have been having an off day. He's got less practise being a hateful little shit than you, my liege. That sort of thing can happen to beginners, no matter their level of genius. Now explain what I'm doing here, other than being used to terrify people who haven't been our enemies for more years than all the residents of this palace have between them."

Tarragon's sly, mocking grin only grew at this, before he turned back to look out the window. "Herb's in Japan."


"Island nation, far to the East and across the sea. It's mostly made up of fishermen and muck farmers, they..."

Scowling deeper, and thanking his dear, departed wife for over two decades of frustration and useless anxiety, Turmeric interrupted to move things along. "So far you've mentioned your son, peasants, and a barbarian nation. I don't especially care for, or about, any of them. Get to the point and let's avoid sharing more purposeless words."

Tarragon clicked his tongue. "Too passionate, too efficient. That's why they were reluctant to see you step down from the throne, both times. Mark my words, when Herb takes my place the people will call for a month of feasts. Don't go!" he abruptly belted, as he watched the incensed prince before him attempt to take a leave. "This is all very relevant, I can assure you."

"Now, you are to find and retrieve my son. He's off in a distant land forging political ties, hunting artifacts, and carrying as eclectic an assortment of documents as has ever been seen. He is supposed to be producing an heir of his own so I can step down before too much longer. These last sixteen years have been absolutely dreadful, and I will not put up with it a day longer than utterly necessary."

"If your own father had taken a similar stance with you..." Turmeric's biting remark was cut short by the disappearance of his grandson's playful manner.

"If that had happened," he stated, "then I might have killed, crippled, or rendered barren many more women on my cock, yes. More fool he. Now if you're finished, I expect you to return with Herb within the month, as well as to have an answer as to what he is doing to so impress our old relations, why he felt the sudden need to locate and acquire the Kaisuifuu, and how he imagined all that running around would be more beneficial than, for example, a wife for giving him a child." The tyrant's hand snapped out in a dismissive gesture, and remained there.

'In hindsight,' the prince chastised himself, 'I should have known bringing up his father, even tangentially, would set him off. He may be habitually cruel, but Anise is a truly sore point with Tarragon.' Keeping his peace, Turmeric strode swiftly and silently to and through the doors.

'And now I get to go hunting my self-involved, thoughtless great-grandson.' Turmeric enthused. 'Bah on all the philosophers; duty, filial piety, and respect are meaningless. The real glue that holds a family together is mutual animosity and an ample supply of spite.'

Herb and Ranma came upon a scene of devastation so complete that it would have been impossible to identify the original configuration of the landscape and foliage from the current pock-marked, cratered, shredded, and scattered mess that had replaced it. Of the camp which had been set only a few hours ago assorted scraps of silk cloth and lumps, or shards, of iron were all that remained. Amid the chaos were two bodies.

Lime's hulking form rested at the bottom of the single large crater in the ruined clearing, breathing rhythmically and showing little sign that it had been involved in the events leading to the destruction all around. The much smaller Mint lay atop a mound of soft earth, upper body wrapped in various shredded strips of blood-soaked cloth, many of which were mustard yellow at the edges. This second one's breathing was much less easily identified, and his flesh was deathly pale. Paying no mind to what Ranma's reaction might be, Herb brusquely ordered the other martial artist to wake Lime and learn what had transpired. For only a moment, she'd thought it was already too late for her bodyguard and near-constant companion, and the wrenching pain it had set off in her chest and gut were only starting to subside. Struggling around the still-immense knot in her stomach, the prince of the Musk rushed to kneel by Mint's side, and better observe his condition.

Mind refusing to clear itself of horrid possibilities, she gently lifted some of the makeshift bandages wound about the little warrior's torso. What she found there was a collection of unnumbered shallow cuts and gashes, most barely deep enough to bleed at all, and some not even that. The greatest risk they posed was infection; almost the entirety of his skin had been compromised. While she could think of nothing that might have inflicted that sort of damage, Herb was well-aware of how to treat it. She quickly replaced the bandages and moved on to the much more heavily-wrapped shoulder. From the state of the rest of his body, this was where most of the bleeding would have to have taken place. 'Or be taking place,' she silently amended when her hands were immediately damp with the sticky fluid. Clamping down hard on the excited emotions this elicited, the Musk prince struggled for the detachment she'd spent so many years training to make use of. Whoever had done this to her guards clearly hadn't intended to kill them if the quality of care rendered here was any indication, but it still might prove insufficient. Herb would need to stop the bleeding immediately if she was to avoid the consequences of letting one of her vassals perish.

With all their equipment probably destroyed, there was nothing else for it but extreme measures, and for those she needed her guard awake. Slapping the ground by his ear gave rise to a tiny thunderclap, but failed to bring about so much as a sliver of consciousness. Hoping it wouldn't worsen some unseen wound; Herb lifted the young wolf clansman into her lap and began shaking him, calling his name all the while. Before long, high-pitched whines of protest were emanating from his throat.

Elated to have gotten a strong response, Herb set about speaking hurriedly to rouse her guard further, an excess of relief and worry leaving her voice hoarse. "Mint! Mint, you must wake up now! You have been wounded, and I must set to work immediately to keep you from...," she swallowed down a painful lump and a word she didn't at all want to associate with her vassal before finishing, "getting worse. Do you understand me? You will answer."

A barely audible susurrus slipped from Mint's lips, forcing Herb to crane her neck in a bit to better know if he was sensible, as well as sensitive. "Soft..." the incapacitated bodyguard moaned out, punctuated by nestling his head more securely atop his prince's breasts. Gentleness stopped being an even passing concern. She proceeded to snake her thin, nimble fingers under the young warrior's cap, secure a grip on the short hair atop his head, then yank hard into the air, drawing a yelp of surprise and pain from him. He suddenly appeared much more alert.

"Good that you are returned to us. You are bleeding badly and I must sear the wound closed. Say that you understand!" Herb was glad that her voice had stabilized from earlier, back into one that was merely harsh and demanding. 'He must not be at ease,' she assured herself as she continued to hold his head up by the hair. 'His pain is mandatory.'

"Y-yes, m-master Herb!" Mint whined, even as he thrashed involuntarily against Herb's painful grip. His good arm was kept clutching the injured, though, making the entire affair even more unpleasant for him than it might otherwise have been.

"Good." The Musk prince stated, a hopeful smile working its way onto her face. "Then I command you to oppose me, do you understand? You absolutely must not submit." And, with all she might do to prepare him taken care of, Herb pushed her guard to the ground, stealing the breath from him even as he attempted to cry out in pain. She took the opportunity to straddle his torso and tear the bandages from his arm, revealing the deep, perfect, bleeding cut which was threatening Mint's life. 'What manner of weapon could have done that, I wonder? It went through part of his collarbone as if it offered no more resistance than air.'

There was a noise of confusion, or possibly concern from the direction she'd sent Ranma when Herb began manifesting her aura and concentrating it around her hands, but the Musk prince had too much to do focusing past the blows a fearful Mint was raining down on her abdomen, legs, and relatively vulnerable chest to give it more thought than that. When the heat distortion from her aura became obvious, Herb negotiated a simple open-palmed strike to her guard's shoulder which was accompanied by the sound of sizzling meat. The smell followed soon after, as did her guard's howl of pain, although the expected convulsions were oddly controlled. 'In fact,' she observed from outside the situation, 'hardly any of my energy is insinuating itself in him at all. Could this be related to my present weakness?'

Herb was spun about and pulled from Mint's body by a pair of small, but astonishingly strong hands on her shoulders, completely ruining both her concentration and train of thought. "What the heck were ya doin' to the guy?" Ranma's face, close to her own, was filled with anger and worry; it was an expression not far from the one she'd seen on his face when Lime had dropped that Akane-girl. That meant, of course, that the pigtailed martial artist wanted a fight.

Despite finding herself glad at the little redhead's concern for her bodyguard, Herb was upset and confused enough at the accusation and recent events to take her up on the offer. A good bout of thrashing someone would do wonders both for her mood, as well as help crystallize the correct course of their near-future actions. Resolving to do just that, later, the Musk prince stood her full height and executed a turn and arm sweep to free herself from Ranma's grip. 'First, revenge.' That was an easy way to proceed.

"You have some miserable taste in 'friends' if you think one of them might bring harm on those they are responsible for." Herb's words lost a healthy measure of their bile when the other girl only nodded, easily, at that. She was left to wonder what sort of friends Ranma already had. "It was for his good, and is not easy to explain. Your agitation waits until later tonight. We are pressed for time; I must know who has done this, and why."

The derisive snort and taunting, sing-song words from the redhead didn't do much good with Herb's tenuous grip on self-mastery. "Yeah? That's gonna be pretty soon, then." Ranma took up a combat stance, and continued in a flatter tone. "It was Ryoga, come for a rematch with the big guy over there. Guess he and the little guy put up a hell of a fight. He doesn't usually go all out anymore. So, are you gonna..."

"It was for the Ladle." Mint, who had recovered his senses gasped out, looking as though he would have much rather stayed insensate. Still, it was enough to make Herb completely refocus her attention.

The prince's face was ashen and her voice tinged with worry. "What do you mean?"

"Hey!" Ranma cried out in clear indignation. "I was on a roll there."

Lime joined the other Musk in not being overly concerned with what Ranma may or may not have been rolling. "Hey, yeah!" He shouted, smacking a fist into his open palm. "I was way too busy beating him up to hear him out, but he said something about it. What'd he want it for?" Herb and Lime both huddled closer to the wounded warrior's prone form to hear him better.

After taking a few shaky breaths, Mint set about recounting his recollections of events. "He... He wanted to trap master Ranma in that form. He wanted to make her his wife." The injured guard pushed himself to a sitting position from which he could look at both curse victims. There was an edge of despair to his words. "I could not stop him. I have failed you both. I promise I will find him and..."

"What!" Ranma squawked, springing into the Musk huddle. "That's crazy; there ain't no way pig-breath would do something like that!" The young Saotome's face scrunched up a bit. "Err, I mean, yeah, when he thought I was his fiancée he was sorta..." Feeling a little nauseated, for some reason, Ranma continued with a little less certainty. "It ain't like we need the Ladle anyway though, right? Won't that uhh, Open Water Kettle will still get rid of this lock without it?"

Herb was having a terrible time controlling the powerful, aggressive, murderous feelings surging through her. On the one hand, venting them on anyone nearby would be inappropriate. Mint was already badly injured, Lime was fine but needed not to be injured, and beating Ranma wouldn't solve anything. The ignorant Japanese martial artist was in almost as bad a position as her own. At last, Herb settled for waiting to destroy that 'Ryoga' and stewing. Her words were perhaps impolitely clipped when she responded, but that was far better than the pigtailed girl might have received. "Yes it will; however, we still need the Ladle. You seem to know him quite well, so you must have some idea where he has taken it. Will you lead us to him?"

Ranma's expression was blank for a moment, but abruptly she started to make some rather loudchoking noises, and finished with snorting laughter. Herb could feel a vein rising to the surface of her temples. She was about to tear into the redhead when a good-humoured explanation of the bizarre reaction made itself known in between chuckles. "Yeah, see. You don't know Ryoga, so I guess you couldn't get it. Odds are, even he doesn't know where he is, where this was, or where he's going. It took him four days to find an empty lot behind his house, once. It's sorta funny." She seemed to start paying attention, at that point, and her laugh became nervous. "Why... aheh... isn't that funny?"

"No way, that masterful tracker!" came Mint's astonished cry.

Herb, on the other hand, had found a place of calm in the storm of transcendent fury that had become her mind. 'Well,' a small, vicious voice commented, 'at least someone else will feel as miserable as me. All it will take is some truth.' Moving past that stable place, Herb's aura sprang up unbidden as she yelled at the pigtailed girl. "It seems you do not mind being trapped in your female form for the rest of your days. Well I won't stand for it. The Ladle is vital; it points the way to the Kettle when they are close, imbecile." Pausing to catch a breath, Herb sent an ugly sneer Ranma's way. "Without the Ladle, we have no clue where on, in, or around this 'mount Horai' the Kettle might even be. Do you imagine the previous owner was considerate enough to produce a giant sign pointing all and sundry to it?" Not bothering to wait on the reaction to her explanation, Herb spun on her heels, plucked a shopping bag from her sack, then thrust all but her recent purchases into Lime's hands.

"Use what you must to clean and dress Mint's wounds, then we move! Sleep waits tonight; I do not wish to deal with the natives who will be coming to investigate that powerful attack." With that, the Musk prince kept walking to the edges of the ruined earth and retreated into her mind, even as her aura retreated back into her body. Underneath it all, it came down to one extremely common, self-pitying question. 'Why me?'

Covered in cuts, bruises, scratches, contusions, and minor injuries of every descriptor and all, as well as a mean gash in his lower back, Ryoga guessed that most people would think he had little reason to be grinning from ear to ear and uttering the occasional tear-choked cry of triumph. He did, however, because he had done it. He'd crushed the most physically powerful combatant he'd ever encountered, and beaten a sword-swinging psychopath at his own game. Sure, it was fall and he only had a sleeveless undershirt and a single pair of badly ripped pants left to his name. Admittedly, he had lost almost all his supplies to damages from the two life-and-death struggles. Yes, he was completely and totally lost, with even his maps taken from him. But in the end, all of these were just petty inconveniences beside the knowledge that the seemingly mundane metal ladle clutched tightly in his hands would free him from his humiliating and pathetic pig curse forever more. As a man in truth and in full, he would be able to confess his feelings for Akane at long last, and with her in his arms the only ultimately meaningful competition with Ranma would be ended with he, not the hated Saotome, the victor.

In his generosity, Ryoga spared a thought to hope that Herb girl wouldn't be too upset when he gave her the ladle back. It would still be in good shape, he'd make sure of it, and the two guards had hardly been the worse for wear except for a large scratch on the smaller of the two, which he had bandaged immediately. Recalling the unprecedented beating the foreign princess had given his once-rival, Ryoga magnanimously decided to spend some time finding a new bucket for her ladle. The decision had nothing at all to do with not wanting to be anywhere near her in his current condition.

Now, he had merely to find the Indian Ocean again and he could set to pouring water from the ladle on himself, keeping him in his true form until he died a warm and loved death surrounded by the beautiful Akane and their many ill-defined children. Hmm, that's strange. I know I passed by it twice on my way to find those guys. Why can't I remember this sprawling cave complex? The geodesic formations and bio-luminescent fungi alone would normally be something a guy notices.' Abandoning it as irrelevant, he broke off a chunk of crystal to give as a present at some later date, and kept on walking.

All thought of the relative locations of various large geographic features was quickly wiped from the Lost Boy's mind; such were usually dark and painful, and as such had no place in the world of hope, wonder, and joy that the silly old spoon he was carrying had lifted him into. It was a world where a light, cool rain was something to be enjoyed on an otherwise warm day. That world held days at the beach, new chances to use public bathhouses, and him holding Akane tightly against him, at long last. He was crying without restraint at his beautiful future by the time he noticed the moon and stars were above him once more, and that beneath him lay a rocky lake shore.

Ryoga's feet carried him to the water's edge unbidden, his conscious mind now far away from the world he knew, and every step he took felt longer than the last. 'Of course, I should be taking this slow. Like a fine meal after months of forage, or a soak in a hot spring after a lengthy journey, this needs to be savoured.' As if sensing his thoughts, dark clouds passed before the moon, and an ominous trail of jagged lines of light banished the night nearby. By the time the thunder boomed out, Ryoga had reached the water and dipped the magical ladle into it. A wall of driving rain was rushing toward the bandana-clad martial artist while he stood, staring defiantly at it.

"This time, I win, Jusenkyo!" His own roar rose above the thunder of the sudden storm, and the Lost Boy upended the ladle's contents on his head. The tool flew from his grasp, even as he found himself falling into and onto the cushioning confines of his own damaged clothing. He struggled free from the loose shirt over him on a reflex, and looked on where his hands should have been with increasingly horrified disbelief. The tiny, adorable, terrible trotters of his cursed form refused to be what they should, only blurring as helpless, defeated tears filled the now-piglet's unusually wide, expressive eyes.

"Bweee!" His cry of protest at the injustice visited upon him would have shocked any observer into wondering at how the haunting, broken noise could originate from a simple animal. The only creatures around were unlikely to make such observations, merely howling loudly to one-another as they closed in on easy prey. When the curtain of rain hit Ryoga, it had spent most of its fury, wearing down to a gentle shower that sounded just like laughter when it struck the rocky ground.

It was late. To Ranma, that understatement was on the level of "my father is an idiot", "Kuno is a bit of an oddball", and "Akane tends to have a few anger issues". The pace they were going at was manageable, but it was wearying to still be 'marching' when it was only hours before she would normally be awoken. Her tiredness was nothing next to the wheezing, gasping mess the trek had turned Lime into. It was hard to judge whether his weakness was a result of his fight with Ryoga earlier, or if he just had a lot less endurance than strength. Still, he had been running very awkwardly to keep from jostling Mint, who lay sleeping in his arms. 'It's kinda cute, actually. Like somethin' out of a TV Special.'

The most frustrating part of their flight from the inevitable investigation of the site of Ryoga's massive attack had been Herb's refusal to engage with anything. The strange girl just kept moving as though she hadn't heard anyone, or just didn't care. Now that even she was starting to show signs of exhaustion, Ranma felt confident that she could force the issue.

Ranma put on a burst of speed to pull up beside the clearly brooding girl. "Me an' Lime here are stopping, now. You gonna join us?" Herb first frowned at her, but then turned to see her bodyguard struggling with every step, and gave a curt nod. They all came to a stop not far from there, and found a rock outcropping to lay down beside for the few hours they would be resting before starting up again.

Setting up her tent in record time, the cursed martial artist mentally prepared for a nice, well-earned sleep. She groaned, though, when she caught sight of the two guards lying on the ground, the more injured atop what appeared to be Herb's cloak, while their master sat nearby, staring off into space and obviously very agitated. It was inevitable, given all their things had been destroyed in the fights with Ryoga. With a grumble, she marched over to the taller girl. 'She'd just better appreciate this. Maybe I could show her how it's done.'

"Hey, Herb. Whatcha looking at?" Saotome school of conversation starters: show interest.

The Musk prince only turned to give Ranma a reptilian glare, before growling, "is it important?"

Heating some, Ranma spat out, "What's your problem? I only came to thank you for how hard you're workin' at fixing that weird curse lock thing!

"Oh... and uh, being as you're a girl, and everything, I wanted to say you could use my tent." She felt she finished that a little awkwardly, but anyone would agree it was a nice recovery from angrily yelling her thanks.

Herb's suddenly blazing cheeks gave Ranma an early warning that, somewhere along the way, the message had been received wrong. Before she could backpedal at all, the prince's expression softened, marginally, and she looked back away, saying in little more than a whisper, "I see. It is not normally acceptable for me to share quarters with anyone, but you are right. It would be far more unacceptable to seek warmth beside my guards."

For the highly sought-after Saotome, Herb's interpretation of her words was call for a red alert. Mistakes like that always led to huge, confused melees, hurt feelings, and annoying lectures about being faithful to his 'true' fiancée, whomever the meddler happened to believe that was; a very frustrated voice within her railed against this. 'Why does everyone have to assume the worst?' It also galled that every time she tried to explain herself, even she could tell it came out as idiotic babbling. "No! It ain't, see, what I was saying was you could, but I wouldn't, and -".

Braced as she was for some manner of misdirected and ill-informed retribution, what confronted Ranma was the social equivalent of a sucker-punch. The tall girl's head turned back, and she seemed to puzzle something over, before her eyes widened and her refined face lit up from a tremendous smile. "I will wait until we have found the Kettle to determine what I could do, just as you should wait until then to decide what exactly it is you wouldn't; even so, I will think on it. Thank you." The last was spoken with an absolute sincerity, and unmistakable gratitude.

'Huh. She does know how to say it,' a dazed Ranma thought, while she was taken by the hand and all but dragged to her tent. Too late, mind caught up with events and her struggles against Herb's grip were in vain, as she was already sitting at the portable domicile's entrance. One more flustered attempt at escape was in order. "Hey! I said you could use my tent, I'll be OK to sleep outside, really." The effect could have been more impressive.

Herb merely snorted, and said, showing teeth, "I have still not forgiven you for implying I would do harm to Mint." She kicked off her own boots, and then found a place to lie down, causing Ranma to stumble in due to her hand still being held. Drowsily, the Musk prince then explained, "you will need to sleep well. I intend to forgive you over sparring when we wake."

Ranma's hand was freed at last, and she was left with the question, 'how tired, or sick, can I afford to be when we fight?' A brief flashback to their first fight made the pigtailed martial artist give up on protecting herself from the repercussions of sleeping in the same tent as any girl. 'If I wanna survive the week,' she reasoned, 'I've gotta survive the day.'

That brought a twinge of worry to Ranma. Knowing what she now did, she could only assume her cursed martial arts rival had stolen the Musk ladle for one reason. He would need a hand living through his mistake. Curling up as far from Herb as she could, Ranma said, "if you're still worried about finding your kettle, don't be. If I know anything about magic, it's a guarantee that there is a huge sign pointin' right to it."

"And how exactly do you know that?"

"'Cause magic likes to make people look stupid. Heck, I should know. You were hauling around a dangerous, important magic thing that ya need to find the other magic thing; there's no way it won't be obvious, and shoved right in our face."

Herb's eyes cracked back open a fraction, "I think, just maybe, you might be on to something," she snorted a laugh. "Now sleep."

Seeing that her opponent was already well on her way to that objective herself, and that she had twice in one day managed to say the right thing to a girl, Ranma joined the race for rest feeling as though she'd already won.

The wind whipped Turmeric from every direction as he stared out at the rising sun. Hills, valleys, villages, and streams all drifted by far and away beneath him, even as the birds fell back at his side and the clouds sailed away on their own merry way above. For the first time in over a century, the aged prince held onto his kite for dear life, pushing himself along with a small amount of Ki while he let the wind do most of the work.

Turmeric wore a private smile at the thought of how, so long ago, the lookouts he'd flown above had had to report that they had seen neither hide nor hair of the king, and that he couldn't have passed by that way. He would take a break every few months to spend a few days with his wife, who would always yell at the then-monarch and strike him about the head when he fell from the sky just behind her. It also gave him a chance to see her daughter, who was every bit as vulgar, blunt, and, unyielding as her mother, but always wanted to prove how much she'd improved since his last visit. He still thought it a terrible shame she was born a girl; her fire and drive would have done much more for the Musk than Anise and his patient, reserved, thoughtful rule. She also would have been trained in the royal family's fighting arts, a lack the aged prince regretted even more.

Those were old things, and no longer had a place in the world beyond his memory, so newer grievances came into focus. Despite the extra effort he had put into it, Turmeric was nowhere near high enough to get a proper look at, or touch, one of the strange metal birds that had been growing in number for the last few decades. Their speed and size were astonishing. That a thing that couldn't be much smaller than a Musk temple could fly so much faster than him with such apparent ease deserved to be marvelled at. The Musk prince nodded, making plans to go searching for where they roosted, so he might learn how they accomplished that feat.

The simple quest would also rob king Tarragon's earlier jibe about retirement of some measure of its validity. 'I'm certainly not ready to retire. Die, maybe, at least once the succession is assured. Honestly, what is wrong with those two? I married the first woman who showed up as a candidate. Why would they make things so hard on themselves? Bah.' Despite being indirectly to blame for his current predicament, Turmeric was having a hard time holding it against the youngest Musk prince. He had no doubt that the young man had already found some nice young woman to torment with his rigidity and inflated ego. To his thinking, Herb had probably just wanted to get a little more time away from his father to properly enjoy his new bride. And who in his right mind would blame another for wanting to distance himself from Tarragon?

The elderly prince continued to glide through the cold winds, and wouldn't stop to land until late in the evening. He had much ground to cover if he was to ruin his great-grandson's honeymoon as ordered.

Mint had woken up to Lime. Lots and lots of Lime. Every one of his senses seemed to only have one possible focus. Lime's massively muscled arm was keeping him from moving. Lime's bulk was the only lit object in his limited field of vision. His partner's scent was overpowering, giving away that he too had been sweating excessively for a very long time. He could even taste the sharp scent of the bigger guard's exertions, much to his displeasure. Trying to wiggle free from the closeness brought home a raging agony in his shoulder that set off all sorts of little aches and stabbing pains across the rest of his body. He whimpered softly, trying not to give in to the weakling urge to cry out his suffering.

Time passed, light increased, and Mint felt he was becoming accustomed to the pain. The heat, however...

Taking a breath of choking air, the small wolf clansman yelped out, "Lime, hey Lime, let go of me!"

The arm around him retracted almost immediately, giving Mint the room to look up at the other guard's weary face. "Did you sleep at all?" he asked, only to receive a growl in the negative. Of course Lime hadn't slept. He had been asleep. The obscenely strong guard had merely not noticed Mint's relatively powerless attempts to break free.

"Are you healthy? Can I?"


And with that brief exchange only one of them was awake again. The huge warrior was good at sleeping, when he wanted to be.

No longer pressed close to a humanoid furnace, the morning chill and the wind which carried it set about making Mint regret his unthinking reply. What was done was done, and he carefully slid out of the bundled clothes that comprised his and Lime's blanket, and off the long, white, slightly sweat-stained cloak that had served as his mattress. Herb's cloak, his waking mind informed him, assisted by the pain of trying to move around with a still badly injured limb.

All of their bedding, it seems, had been Herb's clothes. They were her spare, clean clothes, he was sure. Her scent would have been more pronounced, otherwise. Mint was unable to find his master, so he looked about for clues. It took him no time at all to locate her boot-prints and trace them to, but not back from, Ranma's tent. She, also, didn't appear to have left since entering.

It was everything Mint could do not to whoop and leap in joy. 'And I didn't even do anything,' he thought through his elation. 'I would've figured me and Lime messing up like that would have hurt Ranma's impression of the prince, but she's sleeping with her. Lime must have been really tired to be able to stay conked out knowing that.'

The smaller bodyguard, for his part still sore, aching, and cold, didn't think he'd be up for sleep again any time soon. He started listing off the things he had to take care of that morning before everyone else dragged themselves up from their rest. "I must make breakfast, and clean the laundry, and change my bandages." The last, said in a matter-of-fact manner, drew a small "oh!" from him before he set to work on seeing the severity of his injury, and what his master might have added to it.

Biting his lower lip, the young warrior peeled away the bandage and dressing. The long line of puckered flesh was to be expected. The small, uneven abscesses, too, were expected. That they were so few in number, and very shallow, was the real wonder. Herb had sealed his wound with almost no additional damage from Chi poisoning. There would be no permanent harm at all. He would have full use of the arm as soon as strong scar tissue formed. Mint had been trained by a man who had needed similar emergency care from Herb's father, on a smaller wound, and still the man had needed his hand replaced with a metal substitute.

The wolf clansman had managed to rummage through the bare remains of the food he'd purchased less than half a day prior to produce a meal of assorted chopped vegetables – the only way to prepare them that ensured an absence of shards of rock – some very lucky yogurt mixed with grains, and heavily salted, flaky tuna. The first person up to enjoy it turned out to be his master's intended, who crawled out of her tent quiet as a ghost while casting frequent, nervous glances behind her.

"Hey Mint. You're lookin' better," the redhead said warmly once she had gotten very near to him.

The guard flushed and shoved his face into the fish in his wooden bowl to drown out the powerful scent of the recently very active, and very attractive young woman who was to be his prince's husband-wife-confusing thing. "Good morning, master Ranma. I have prepared a bowl for you." Mint muffled out his own greeting, while gesturing to the side with the elbow of his wounded arm.

"Great! I'm starved." Following that pronouncement, the redhead swept up both food and utensils and seated herself to dig in with gusto. He cautiously looked up from his own meal to see her devouring hers.

Ranma looked absolutely terrible. He stopped himself short of laughing. Her braid was glued to her neck by sweat, her clothes were rumpled, and she moved awkwardly to compensate for obviously sore muscles. She was quite literally drooling around the mouthfuls of food she refused to wait to swallow before adding to, and her eyes were tight from weariness. It seemed that not just Lime had dealt with a long night. When his prince exited the tent she'd shared with Ranma looking to be in much the same miserable state as everyone else, Mint did laugh.

Herb's twitching eyes fell on him, but there was more curiosity there than malice, so he let the absurdity of his thoughts come to a natural conclusion. 'Even women,' he realized, 'can look awful.'

"Something I'm missing?" Ranma asked the heir to the Musk Dynasty, even as she chewed, resulting in flecks of food flying all over.

The prince shook her head at that, scooting slightly further from the fountain of pre-chewed projectile victules. "I have no idea what has gotten into him. Perhaps your associate has damaged him worse than I presumed." So saying, she approached and picked up a bowl herself. Apparently, she was too hungry to finish getting answers. Herb ate with forced dignity while casting envious glares at the more rapid pace of consumption Ranma was keeping.

That was enough. Mint had to say something. "My apologies, prince Herb." Having wheezed that out, he tried to elaborate. "I never expected to see you like I used to again. I was foolish to think that anything was different."

"If it causes you to stop making yourself a fool, I will accept that." Herb huffed out in reply, before returning to eating as quickly as dignity would allow. Ranma was grinning broadly around the food she'd crammed into her mouth.

"Do you want to bathe before I clean our clothes, master?"

Herb gave an enthusiastic shake of her head in response. "No. I am bound to beat our new travelling companion within an inch of her life."

"Heh, like that'll happen, princess." The pigtailed martial artist objected with confidence.

Herb barked a laugh, then pointed at her partner with her chopsticks. "I can assure you that I will be victorious; experience is on my side. I look forward, though, to learning where your delusion stems from."

When the two stood and distanced themselves from camp to fight, Mint watched two prideful women face off. He wondered how angry Herb would be when he told her he'd been too distracted by the astonishing martial arts 'sparring match' to do any actual cleaning whatsoever.

An insistent call brought Akane back from the brink of blessed unconsciousness, leaving her blinking stupidly until the call came back again, more clearly.

"Tendo-, Miss Tendo Akane!" The teen now recognized her English teacher's voice, which he had raised well above his normal, placid tone.

"Y- yes?" She flushed while responding, and stifled an insistent yawn. Akane was not at all used to being the classroom's disruption.

"It seems you are learning some rather bad habits from your house guest, Miss Tendo. Could we disturb you for a moment to translate the second line of the third paragraph on page 178? It was in your homework, so it shouldn't be much trouble for you."

'Which would be true,' she reflected, 'if I had done my homework.' Trying to keep her groan of despair soft, the Tendo heir opened her textbook to the appropriate page and prepared to fake it, translating as she read the lines for the first time. "I was... too tired... for task...no, to do the assignment?" Her voice raised in both pitch, and sheepishness with each and every syllable, as an awkward smile formed itself on her face.

She received a quick nod from mister Honda. "You managed it well, Miss Tendo. Find the time to do your assigned work next time, if you would." With that, he carried on with teaching, and did not ask Akane to read much more, thankfully. At times she had trouble deciding whether she would be glad to see this particular instructor transfer across the city or not.

Lunch was much more the youngest Tendo's speed on that day. She slipped on her jacket, picked up the meal her eldest sister had prepared, and found an unoccupied bench outside the school building to consume it from. She may have eaten a little quickly.

A slightly taller girl in the school boy's uniform though soon enough threw herself down on the bench beside her. "Way to wing it in class there, Akane!"

"Thanks, Ukyou." She managed at least that pleasantry, despite how tired she was.

The other girl needed friends, given her tough position. According to official documentation Kuonji Ukyou was a boy, registered as such in almost every place a person could care to look. She'd confided once that her birth certificate alone contradicted the lie. She still made some concessions to the farce, such as binding her breasts, wearing boys' uniforms, and participating in their school curriculum.

'Granted,' Akane conceded, watching her sometimes friend, sometimes 'rival' set up the portable grill she carried with her to school most days, 'it isn't like she needs to learn how to cook or manage money.'

"Ucchan's", the okonomiyaki restaurant Ukyou managed, cooked for, and was the sole server at, was getting the girl all the money she needed to support herself. Akane had thought she would stop being jealous of other girls when she got over her crush on the young doctor that her sister Kasumi had already stolen the heart of. Discovering that one her own age was an accomplished martial artist, entrepreneur, and still managing to get passable marks in school had really robbed the blue-haired girl of that illusion.

"Hey, why are you so sleepy lately, anyway, sugar?" The question startled Akane out of her musings.

"Oh, you know." Akane said, feeling silly about explaining. "It's just there are two schools of martial arts beekeepers that petitioned our dojo to keep their competition clean and..." Fiddling with her short hair, Akane tried a joke. "Both of them had more dirty tricks than uncle Saotome." She paused briefly. "And I swear, if I hear another joke from everyone about pollinating, I will just- I will just smash the next person I see's face in." She snorted. "Perverts."

It got an awkward laugh out of Ukyou; though she took a bit more towards the former of her two comments. Ranma's father was the reason she had such a bizarre life in the first place. Having set up and fuelled the stand from which she'd sell her family's speciality pancakes, the girl clapped Akane on the back, bringing on wave after wave of agony. "Well damn, girl! I'm amazed you're not a mass of stings."

Akane thought she mastered the pain better than most, but her open-mouthed, silent scream, probably gave away where a literal handful of bee assassins had managed to score hits. That or the way she fell off her seat.

"Err... Sorry," the other girl said awkwardly, helping her back to the bench. "How 'bout I give you something on the house to apologize?"

Restoring her dignity, Akane gave a strained smile, and bubbled out a, "thanks Ukyou."

"I guess it's usually Ranma who gets the worst of those things, huh?"

'True enough.' Akane recognized that her fiancé tended to get more than his fair share of trouble. She just assumed it would follow him. 'Guess it likes the dojo just fine, Ranma or no.'

Fidgeting with the ribbon holding back her long, chestnut hair, Ukyou carried on with that sticking point. "You talked to him lately?" Every time their mutual fiancé came up, things tended to get tense between them. It was a shame, since Akane was pretty sure the two of them could have really been best friends. Given what Ukyou had invested in her engagement, the wedge was going nowhere fast.

Letting out a sigh for lost opportunity, Akane nodded and got a wistful look. "Yeah, he calls every couple days or so to hear what we're doing in class. He's going to be gone for at least another couple weeks though, because the Musk don't want to, or can't take the trains."

"Why's that?" Ukyou asked, even as she started preparing some pancakes, sign advertising specials to her side. "Even the amazons ride."

"Well, he says it's because they don't exist, according to their government."

"So Ranma seriously got swept off by a fairy tale princess?"

Akane gave a snort at that. "You and Nabiki. Ranma's just going there to fix the curse lock and prove that he didn't really lose to a girl. I bet he's so busy trying to beat her he hasn't even noticed what she looks like."

"Which is hauntingly beautiful, little sister," the middle Tendo sister chirped as she slid up and ordered a spicy pancake against Ukyou's existing debt to her, all while counting out a small stack of yen. "Hope she sticks around, you won't believe what the geeks were willing to pay for photos of a real to life half-dragon princess."

Incredulous, Akane accepted the first shrimp pancake from the grill, wondering all the while how Ukyou could cook so well when she was scowling at something nowhere near the food. "You took enough pictures of her to make money off Herb in the five minute she was standing outside our house!"

"Of course!" Her mercenary sister's bright response added a new dimension to the twitch in Akane's eye. "Hey, I have to keep up with uncle Saotome."

"Why would ya wanna 'keep up' with the dirty thief, honey?" Ukyou's steely gaze betrayed a strong animosity. It was fortunate that her pancakes never suffered from her moods.

"Ukyou, dear, that 'dirty thief' has been executing an expert emotional blackmail ploy on our father since a very foolish joke he made. I would've fallen way behind if I weren't abusing the image of a foreign royal and complete stranger!" The reference was to the silent treatment that Saotome Genma was giving their father in order to acquire loot in apology.

"B- Behind?" Akane almost couldn't bear to hear what would invariably come next.

"Behind in unearned revenue, sister dear. It'd be a scandal if I lost to a smelly old panda!"

'Yeesh,' Akane realized, 'Ranma's dad is a horrible influence on her.' Finding that Nabiki and Ukyou were now talking animatedly about other scams that needed to be surpassed, she turned her attention elsewhere in the school yard. 'I swear, If I listen to her too much, I'll be obligated to call the police.'

She would have loved to learn why Shampoo had joined Ranma's friends Hiroshi and Daisuke for lunch, toting along meals for all of them, she really would have. But Kuno Tatewaki, known to all as 'The Blue Thunder of Furinkan High', dressed in his Kendo uniform in clear defiance of school dress codes, descended upon Akane with a bouquet of roses in a gesture of twisted 'love', and his wooden sword to challenge her skill. Sleep-deprived and in pain as she was, it was almost the end of lunch by the time the youngest Tendo had flattened her most persistent admirer, and her pancake had grown cold, too.

"Say, sugar?" Ukyou asked as she packed away her supplies.

Trying not to sound too dejected, Akane mumbled out, "yeah?"

"Can you maybe ask him to... call me... at some point?"


She would ask it of him, at that. And Ranma would agree to do it, no less. Then, just like with his mother, he would get caught up in whatever nonsense he was a part of and forget everything.

Saotome Nodoka, who had been missing her son for the last ten years, was now missing that son's female alter ego, "Ranko", pretty badly, too. She was visiting the Tendo residence to spend time with her 'future daughter-in-law' almost every other day now. Sometimes it seemed as if the Saotome family was only so odd as it was to make her own family look normal in comparison.

Herb was nervous. More accurately, she was experiencing an acute case of anxious dread. Over a week of trekking across the Japanese wilderness, such as it was, had made the opportunity presented by the open air hot spring almost too good to pass up. Being clean and warm again had grown into a fantasy for Herb and, if the hopeful, overlong glances they'd given the advertisements for the place were any indicator, so had it been with all of her companions. It still felt like the very most important thing in the world, but there were mitigating factors at work. More accurately, there was one overwhelming mitigating factor at work, right behind the panicking prince's back. The two of them were alone in the woman's change room at the nearly abandoned hot spring, but the addition of Ranma made the process of undressing almost unbearably frightening.

As a rule, a Musk prince does not expose more than the flesh of his face, hands, or feet before any but his wife, or professionals absolutely requiring such. Nothing he had read explained the reason for the tradition. To be sure, others had caught glimpses of more, and at this, much of Herb's body flushed from her remembering the inexplicable number of times one or another of her bodyguards had done so over the course of their journey thus far. To be sure, neither Lime nor Mint would look intentionally, but a very large, uncharitable part of Herb's mind maintained that they were also not intentionally working to reduce the frequency of such accidents.

The problem was with Ranma. Despite her nervousness and shameful fear, the other curse victim had extended her hand in a bid of friendship. Then, despite her short temper and spiteful comments, had offered to share a tent with her. It was an unasked for and certainly unexpected kindness that had made the troubles facing her just a little more surmountable. All of that paled beside the thrill of their few sparring matches. Ranma had made a miserable showing of his skills in their first encounter, and the more Herb learned of his style and how it functioned, the clearer it became that it could have gone no other way. The Anything Goes School of martial arts was well-named, since over the last week Herb had been subjected to a dizzying array of combat techniques from countless styles, all woven together as though they belonged to one, unbroken Art.

It seemed that a student of Anything Goes tailored their style to the enemies they faced. If it hadn't been for her superior speed and mastery of her specific Art, Herb had no doubt that the Japanese martial artist would be scoring more than just regular glancing blows. The heir to Musk Dynasty still won every engagement, even restricting herself to the lower style, but she had to wonder how much further she would be pressed by the time she had to return Ranma to Nerima. She still wasn't entirely sure she wanted to do that. Ranma's vivid blue eyes, always meeting hers and always filled with determination despite defeat and disappointment, never flinching, and presenting a persistent challenge to make them do so, would be sorely missed by the young prince. Even so, she had sworn to return the pigtailed martial artist to her home, and it had become part of her duty.

Duty also demanded that Herb sire a new heir to the Dynasty, something she had been worried might not be possible. 'But... Ranma has shown an interest, even if a small one, in me. She, and he, knows about my curse; he even has the same one. I only went to Jusenkyo to learn if a victim of the Spring of Drowned Girl curse would be able to bear my children. Would he, or she, be able to accept that? Would it be possible to test something like that without...' Herb's body reddened further, and she worked to arrest that train of thought immediately.

The occasional... pleasant... dream of the last few days made it a no-longer safe subject to dwell on. Those had been very vague, but she had the distinct impression that she had not necessarily been male in all of them, and the other characters also might have been inappropriate. She had known that there were more than a few people whose 'sexual preferences' changed after being cursed, but nowhere had the guidebook described an increase in sexual awareness and interest such as she was presently experiencing.

"Hey. Are ya coming?"

The sudden voice intruding on her thoughts had Herb's heart leaping into her throat. She inhaled sharply, and weakly responded, "I was collecting my thoughts." After a moment of reclaiming a proper rhythm to her breaths, and thanking the heavens that Ranma had been just as keen on not changing where they could see one-another, Herb continued stiffly. "You may precede me; I will not be long."

"Alright," was the only response, before the pigtailed girl padded off toward the springs.

When she was fully alone, the Musk prince gave her head a long shake to clear it of the images conjured within. Finding that both unhelpful and dizzying, she hoped that the towel she was carrying, along with steam from the water, might hide how red she was before setting foot into the heated pools. Carefully unfastening the ties on her clothing, she dropped all the articles into a basket provided to her for her patronage. After cleaning herself efficiently with shockingly cold water, Herb fastened a clean, white towel about her torso. Careful to keep it from dropping, she followed out to the springs themselves.

The chill air outside pushed her along to the water's edge, where its steaming warmth could be felt clearly. The spring was as empty as the locker room had been, which meant that there was only a mass of red hair visible through the heat haze. Already eager to slip into the hot water and seeing that Ranma would not be able to observe her, Herb unwrapped her towel and submerged herself. Muscles that had been bothering her since shortly after she left the cargo ship in Tokyo harbour, and others from more recent events, started in on the long, slow process of loosening, causing the dragon prince to sigh in relief. Out of the corner of her eye, Herb could see that the other curse victim's head had changed orientation to be facing directly away from her. 'It's good he has so much respect for my privacy,' she reflected, with much relief and a few other confused feelings.

Even if it was a bit embarrassing just being there with someone else, Herb knew this was the best chance likely to appear for a relaxed discussion that neither Lime nor Mint would overhear. The two had grown insufferable, even if they had started paying attention to something other than breasts. Wetting dry lips, and crushing down nervousness, she decided to comment on something safe. "This is exceptionally pleasant. Better even than the baths in the palace. Do you have many occasions to visit such places?"

The petite girl fidgeted for a moment, before making a quiet reply. "Not so much anymore. It isn't exactly convenient, since Jusenkyo. Can't wash in the man's change room, and can't bathe on the woman's side. I can go, if I want to, but it just reminds me how much the curse sucks. 'Course, being stuck the wrong way's no better. "

"Is it very much trouble, changing all the time?"

"Kinda sorta… it's mostly when I'm too distracted to notice, and people will start treatin' me like a girl all of a sudden. I feel a bit like an ass when I go off on them before catching on. Can't just be biting peoples' heads off 'cause they don't know my life story, y'know?"

Herb nodded her head in understanding. The guidebook had said much the same thing, only couched in more scholarly terms such as "social expectations" and "normative behaviours".

Out of the blue, Ranma took the initiative, pushing aside a curtain of loose hair to look Herb's way before bluntly asking, "why's your hair all those different colours? I mean, is it just some freaky part-dragon thing like your eyes?"

Herb scowled at the use of the word "freaky" to describe her, and responded crisply. "Descendants of Vanilla all have much the same hair colour, and yes, irises. We also share a similarity in stature, build, and many features. I, at this moment, do not look much dissimilar from her portrait at the palace aside from a blessed lack of restraints." In spite of the all-pervasive heat of the springs, the image that conjured of her switching places with her inhuman ancestor sent chills up and down the prince's spine.

"Huh. Guess there's only so much dragon somethin' can lose?"

"That's what some of the scholars of that time assumed, as well. They were more useful than their poetic contemporaries, who searched for pretty words to describe things over plain ones."

"Yeah. I'm not so fond of the poets myself." Ranma scrunched up her nose cutely, then laughed a little. "What kind of stuff did your poets have to say?"

Herb shrugged, then answered in hopes of learning what her companion's peculiar problem with versifiers might be. "They wrote something along the lines of 'the celestially beautiful, sinuous mistress of the clouds, who so loved the birth and death of the Sun that she laced its light into her mane' to describe her. They said 'even in a woman's guise, her majesty and devotion shone through her reduced form and that of all her young'."

"Yeah, that sounds like the kinda junk they'd say. I guess I can see where they were coming from." A silent moment passed, then Ranma began waving her arms furiously, saying loudly and in a near panic, "I mean, with the hair thing! Not that..."

More didn't seem to be forthcoming from the smaller girl, whose own hair was currently hanging loose, so Herb let the comment pass and thought on it. 'Could he find this body attractive? That would certainly be an inroad to what I need to ask, if a bizarre one.' Looking down into the dark water, the Musk prince admired the face looking back at her. 'Well, you're not that much different from my other form's. It's a chance, but who else is there?'

Well, there was Ranma's problem with women to think about.

"You are engaged to wed, or pursued by quite a number of women. Are you planning to marry one of them? All of them? None?" The question was tactless, would certainly be uncomfortable, and there was no reason to believe the martial artist lounging in the water within arm's reach would answer. She also needed to know the answer.

"Hey! I didn't ask for any of them. What makes you think I've got a choice in it, anyway?" Ranma's voice was raised; she was glaring and looked positively livid.

"I did n-"

"No, jus' try not to go on a homicidal frenzy. I want nothin' to do with Shampoo 'cause she's a crazy backwoods foreigner who spent weeks hunting me down to murder me 'cause I beat her in a fight and now makes lovey-dovey all the time. I've got no idea what makes her think I even want that. It isn't like I can get rid of her, though. D'you think Cologne's not around to ensure I keep her as an option? Yeah, I can deal with Shampoo and the trouble she brings, but I'm not stupid enough to think the old mummy won't do something dangerous if I completely drop the psycho. I'm not dumb enough to think I can protect everyone from that, whatever anyone says.

"And Ukyou's, like, a friend I had for a couple months when I was a kid. I thought she was a friggin' boy. She spent, like, ten years of her life training to kill me and renounced being a girl 'cause my old man tricked me into agreeing to run off with her family's food stand. Then, within a couple days of meetin' me, she was trying to marry me! I like her plenty most of the time, but she might be crazier than Shampoo! I could have told her to get the hell out of my life, too, but then my idiot father outright declared that she was my fiancée. What was the miserable panda even thinking?"

Ranma couldn't stop. She was ranting at full steam now. Months of pent up anger and frustration were culminating in a single moment where she could just vent her frustrations out on a person who at least was somewhat of a neutral party in this whole mess. Without missing a single beat, she continued on.

"Oh, an' don't even get me started on Kodachi. Let me tell ya, she should be in an institution gettin' cured of whatever the hell filled her with seven different kinds of crazy."

"Now the only one of em' that isn't a complete nutjob, psychopath, or wacko is Akane. And you know what? Her older sister that hardly says anything mean about anyone says 'she's really a sweet girl, it's just she's a violent maniac'. And even with that I bet we could somehow still get along if our idiot fathers, her evil middle sister, all the psychos and nutjobs I mentioned, and more would just leave us the hell alone! So yeah, maybe I don't know about Akane, but even if I hated her guts, I'm still honour-bound to marry her and that can't happen since I'm honour-bound to marry Ukyou, too, and odds are Cologne'll use some stupid scary Amazon martial arts bullshit to kill or mind-screw everyone I know or give a damn about if I don't pick Shampoo!"

As Ranma's tirade came to a close, she was standing, dripping water, and breathing heavily. Herb was surprised to find herself backed against the wall of the hot spring, sitting up and revealing more of her body than she would have been comfortable with. Some calm, reserved part of her mind idly noted that perhaps all the foolery Ranma and her "friends" had engaged in back at the Cat Café were not so much the sort of thing that she enjoyed. Trying not to let an elevated heart rate impinge on her dignity, Herb attempted some diplomatic, placating words. "You are bound by duty, then. Perhaps as much as I am."

If it had any positive effect, it was perhaps that the furious martial artist sat back down instead of stomping off. "Yeah? Well what's your 'duty' all about anyway, huh? You've been asking me a bunch of stuff about my life while we ran around, so I might as well learn why yours is screwed up and how it's probably gonna mess up mine worse." The petulant, accusatory request made, Ranma folded her arms in front of her and waited.

Herb, finding it difficult to form a real response to that, opted to stall while she prepared one that was coherent and served the intended purpose. From the selection of, 'if he were my servant I would beat him within an inch of his life', 'she is such a beautifully built, tiny girl', and 'he just won't understand my responsibilities', the last threads of immediately available thoughts in her excited, heat-addled mind, she didn't have much to work with.

"I am responsible for quite a lot, you know. You will not understand what my duties are, and why they are so urgent if you are not made aware." As the words tumbled forth, with precision and very little emotion, Herb began working out how to proceed. Her words grew sterner, even as she looked out across the steaming pool in which they both sat. "I will require you to speak and act as if what I say is in good faith. If you do not, I will want to do you great harm, something which I am bound to avoid."

"Ya sound like my pops when he's getting ready to make up some lame excuse."

A natural stone bench beneath the surface of the water developed cracks and fissures where the Musk prince's fingers began to press into it. To herself, she mumbled, "we both owe that hideous hag quite a lot for the promise she extracted."

Loudly, with little care that Lime or Mint would hear from the pool they were no doubt recovering and relaxing in, Herb fired off her list of complaints with life all the while glaring daggers. "Very well then. I am the last heir to a ridiculously tiny, endangered, forgotten people living out in Quinghai province. Both my father and great-grandfather, my only living relatives I'm aware of, are well advanced in their years and are mean-spirited, sadistic monsters through-and-through.

"I am charged with ensuring that our people survive another generation, despite our dwindling treasury, lack of meaningful contribution to or from the rest of the world, and a birth rate that makes China's 'one child only' law seem like a good bit of mockery, since most Musk families have to work for years to manage even that. My own father spent the better part of five decades and two wives getting to me, and Heaven knows he has yet to shut up about how disappointed he is in that outcome."

Placing one hand over her breast and flinging the other out wide, Herb pressed on. "And do you think that is the worst of what I must face? Hardly, It is my duty to ensure that the Musk arts, way of life, histories, and treasures remain strong and intact. Mind you, all this is in spite of the fact that I have learned that the Communist Party of China has little to no respect for or memory of our people's contribution to the current state of the Middle Kingdom. They would just as happily subsume us as they have the iron men, if they knew we existed at all. Looking at the state of your country, I have my doubts about us remaining unintentionally hidden and separate for very long at all.

"Oh, and do not think that's where it ends! Because fate has thrown me, what I hoped was a last, vicious blow to my chance of succeeding in my life. I already failed at all of my duties before I started. I am free from all those responsibilities because I am physically incapable of living up to them."

Seeing that Ranma was not about to interrupt, Herb grew more despondent and less angry, her voice falling down in volume commensurately. She kept her gaze trained on the other girl, now, to make herself better understood and to dare her to say anything ill. "I am incapable of having children. So say all the wise men, alchemists, soothsayers, witches, and oracles I have spoken with. Even the men of 'science' have thrown their hands up. There will be no princes of the Musk to follow after me. Given that, I can never be king. My father will die on the throne. My great-grandfather will no doubt replace him and live a thousand years miserable and hating everyone around him because the old bastard refuses to die like normal men. I would wager by then that only a handful of Musk will remain. Perhaps I still will, doomed to live just as long as the old man himself, useless to everybody." Her voice got hoarser, more ragged as she continued. It was terrible to say those things, but it relieved even more pressure than the springs themselves had.

The red-haired girl did interrupt, then, looking even more miserable than when she'd been going over her life. "Aww, jeez, I'm sorry Herb. I didn't mean to be a jerk about it... I shoulda known other people had problems too. Look, just, don't cry, alright? Just don't. I mean, there's gotta be something you can do, even if I ain't got any ideas right now, but-"

"I am a prince of the Musk. I am not crying." Earlier experience did not support Herb's denial, and she was fairly certain the lie was as bald-faced as they came, so she kept going forward with her explanation despite how rough and uneven her voice was becoming. "And I thought there was something that might help. It... there was a monk who thought that Jusenkyo might hold the answer. That its influence was needed, now, as it was just over a thousand years ago. The... the Ladle, and the pools, finding you, and the Kettle, and all of this." She took some deep, mucus-filled breaths before submerging her face beneath the water. It stung, but cleared away some of the mess her attempts at explanation were causing. When she lifted her head back up, Ranma was much closer, and holding out a towel to her.

Without a word, aware of how weak it made her look and filled with self-loathing at being unable to master herself, Herb reached for the proffered article and pushed her face into it.

It took her a moment to tune in to the fact that Ranma was talking. The words were soothing, and very hopeful. "...'t gotta worry, really. I mean, Ryoga always shows up eventually." That didn't seem all that important, but at least it would make finding the Kaisuifuu simple. "Then you'll have the other artifact, so you can lock and unlock your curse when you want to."

'Why would I ever want to lock my curse again after this travesty?'

"I mean, wow, that's smart. If the spring worked for a dragon, it would be bound to work for a part-dragon, right? So yeah, we'll find that Kettle, get assaulted by Ryoga eventually 'cause he never stays gone for long, beat the crap outta him for taking your Ladle, and then you'll be able to be a mom by using Jusenkyo! See? You just have to go forward with what you were planning and the goof-up'll handle the rest for us."

Herb dropped the towel in her hands as she veritably gawked at the redhead speaking to her.

"Prince or no," the astrologer had said, "I value my family's reputation too much to give you a pretty fortune. There is no suitable wife for you in this world."

His home had looked better as a pile of rubble. Herb ignored the man's screams, sure that he would find someone less inept eventually.

"What do I look like, boy, a goddess? I'd smile at the compliment and laugh if you thought I'd believe you. I can't make a mule a stud no matter how much you glow and yell at me. Now either find someone who can, or at least find somewhere else to be uselessly angry."

Herb would only learn weeks later that the witch's home, which had been lifted into the heavens by a 'freak' hurricane of uncommon power, had landed on a farm girl. He never figured out how news companies had known it was an act of petty, symbolic vengeance without even knowing about his involvement.

"Look," the reiki practitioner reasoned. "You're obviously in phenomenal shape. I'm not arguing that. It's just that, spiritually, you're such an incredible mess I'm scared to even touch you. I've never seen anyone, or anything, with pathways like yours. Have you suffered any massive physical or mental traumas? Perhaps a string of them?"

Herb's eyes narrowed. "No," came his taciturn reply, one hand flexing and clenching repeatedly where it crossed over the opposite arm's elbow.

More nervous, now, the specialist scratched at his cheek. "I just can't understand why you'd be so very different from any patient I've ever studied before, or how you could maintain such balanced and absurdly high levels of energy throughout you."

Scowling, the Musk prince made his original request again, slowly and deliberately. "I am hoping to take a bride soon. I have reason to believe impregnating her will prove time-consuming at best. I do not care to hear how bizarre my chi system is; that is to be expected given my lineage. Can you do anything to ensure my virility, or not?"

Getting the hint, the current victim of Herb's attention frowned. "I could easily do so if your chi flow resembled any sort of normal person's." The words had been spoken haltingly, uncertainly. His confidence returned when he said, "I can also study the current workings of your body to determine a likely solution, if you'll relax."

Within a half-minute of starting, the hand the healer was using to trace Herb's chi pathways lost all feeling and hung limp at the end of his arm. It stayed that way for most of a week, leaving the Musk heir largely content with the punishment the failure had inflicted on himself.

It was a defeated prince of the Musk who stumbled out of the fertility clinic in Beijing. He had been told, time and again, that his problem was without solution by every sort of reputable specialist the Middle Kingdom had to offer. Now, it seemed, even the charlatans and hucksters of "Western medicine" had given up on his problem.

'How can I even return home?' He thought to himself, unwilling to imagine the response his father would have to his ultimate failure as a man and heir to the Dynasty. Even the thought of how terribly it would affect the king couldn't lift Herb's mood. There was nothing left. His family, and then his people, would die out unnoticed by the teeming hundreds of millions in the Middle Kingdom alone. It wasn't his fault; he was the fault. In a daze, he returned to the spartan room he'd rented for himself, packed his things, and fell back out into the street. He purchased some food without paying attention to what it was, how much it cost, or how much he had given.

To all sides people passed on foot, on bicycles, or in covered vehicles emitting noxious fumes. 'Automobiles,' Herb distractedly identified them. Through the unending throng of humanity he pushed, occasionally noting something that made him loathe it, himself, or both. A fat, weak, sweaty, balding man wearing a ridiculous, monochromatic getup dragged a plump, weak, sweaty, screaming child wearing much the same behind him. Bile rose in the Musk prince's throat; the buffoon was still a better man than him. If all and sundry were to be believed, he always would be, and so might his pathetic child one day be.

It was nightfall and Herb walked on, still. With so little energy in his movements, there was much of Beijing left to traverse before he would find himself free from its long reach. He imagined that he'd passed by more people in that day than there had ever been Musk, living and dead, in their many thousands of years of history. If the charlatans were to be believed, he'd have better luck impregnating a dragon than some human girl. If the sparse history of interaction with those creatures was any indication, he might also face similar odds spilling his seed in the wind and hoping for a miracle as he would trying to locate one.

A cheerful, pleasant voice cut through his mental haze. "Ahh! Your disgraced eminence, what a curious fortune to meet you this evening."

At the spectacularly improper form of address, Herb's head whipped around to find that it had been him referred to as such, by a man with a shaved pate and robes that might once have been sky blue before dust and frequent wear had reduced them to a slate grey. The monk, and such he must have been, wore an imbecilic grin on his taut face and was propped up against his walking stick, in the pit of his arm. His ears stuck out nearly perpendicular from the side of his head and his eyes seemed to be looking in every direction but Herb's.

"You have mistaken me for someone else." Too depressed to mount a towering rage at the feeble-minded ascetic, the failed heir to the Musk Dynasty contented himself with that and kept walking.

Only, he was no longer walking alone. "Ha! Yes, this one has been known to mistake the Sun for the Moon and Earth for Sky."

Scowling, Herb prepared to push the man away and tell him to pester someone else with his dehydrated, starved, sun-maddened 'wisdom'. On finding the arm intended for the task ended in a hand carrying a heavily bruised peach, the Musk prince scowled and scolded himself for his inattention.

"I will absolutely refuse to bring specific attention to the fruit you're carrying, and aren't going to eat. Do not mind me, I am only stretching my arm, coincidentally in your direction, and limbering up my hand by making grasping motions at nothing in particular that you are certainly carrying."

Indeed. The man was extending his arm out in Herb's direction. His hand, too, was opening and closing, although it seemed very doubtful that these efforts were so unfocused as the clearly touched monk was making them out to be. Still, after the final disappointment of the day Herb could no more bring himself to eat than if he had filled his stomach with stones. With a grunt, he placed the peach in the other man's hand before quickening his pace.

He didn't lose his new companion. "Well alright, it seems your keen mind has no more vanished than your unthinking majesty." The monk barked out a laugh. "Do not be concerned, who would simple me tell of your presence here?"

Herb tensed at the implied threat, then looked at the man with new, warier eyes. It did not seem to affect him, and he carried on blithely. "Would you share a story of what troubles one who has abandoned all trouble? I hazard it might put both our concerns to rest." He then placed a hand behind his left ear to curve it towards the Musk prince, not that there was any appreciable benefit.

Looking around to ensure that his blackmailer was the only person around, he was a bit astounded to find this to actually be the case, despite feeling that there were numberless hordes wherever he turned mere minutes ago. Without batting an eye though, Herb spoke softly, but firmly. "What is it you desire? If you speak of this, I will ensure that there is nothing left of you in this world."

Completely unmoved, to Herb's shock, the monk waved the threat away as irrelevant. His voice remained jovial, his posture friendly. "A good one! No, as I have said, the secret of your endless procession of failures and shames is safe with me, eminence. I seek only to repay a gift with a favour. I can do no less, and will do no more."

Still doubtful, but unsure of the danger the man could actually pose, the Musk heir said simply, "I have had some disappointments in my efforts to secure an heir. It is ultimately no concern of yours, and entirely mine. Now, if you will leave, I have no time to deal with you or whatever trouble you might bring."

But it wasn't done. "Oh! Your memory is so poor in your old age, oh incomparably dishonoured one. Tell me you have not forgotten the Musk, and 'their' Kettle and Ladle!" When Herb's eyes bulged dangerously close to escaping their sockets, the monk guffawed. "Well there you go! The problem was never there in the first place. The Nyanniichuan worked, after all." The monk proceeded to slap his knees, before falling back on his rump. "That was easy. Debt repaid for playing at being your memory. Now, take ease! Do not be so troubled! It mars your beauty, which is already heavily obscured on this most curious day."

Herb didn't thank him. He didn't even give him another glance. Instead, he dashed off toward where he knew Musk lands were to test the idea he'd just been given. He missed, as a result, more pointless abuse heaped on him, as well as the man striking out a name on a scroll he carried. These certainly would answer no nagging questions the peculiar monk had raised, nor make sense of his uncommon knowledge or behaviour.

Turmeric, prince of the Musk, had been astonished to discover that the giant metal birds actually had human handlers. His disbelief had bubbled over when he learned they had had human makers as well!He was still a bit sceptical of the whole arrangement. 'But,' he cautioned, 'it is difficult to deny I am being hauled around inside one, like it's some manner of giant, flying, self-propelled carriage!'

Of course, boarding one of these fantastic 'aeroplanes' as he had been told they were called, had not been a task without difficulty. It had been something like a game, in the beginning. Turmeric told the man at the gates that he would be investigating one of them, specifically one headed to, or over, Japan. The very official man had, in turn, told him that this would never occur if he was unable to produce identification. It appeared that neither his signature, nor his seal, nor even his distinctive appearance counted as 'identification'. Finally, the official man refusing him access had yelled in frustration that the plane heading that way was presently leaving, and that the Musk prince might as well get his proper paperwork to catch a later flight.

He'd jovially told the man it would be no problem, and he'd just catch it before it left. A lazy hop brought Turmeric over the gates, and drew the official's ire, because he raised a general hue and cry. The aged martial artist conceded that perhaps he'd overreacted, but the sight of the same manner of weapon the bandits who had sacked the village his wife once lived in being drawn and pointed in his direction had produced an emotional, rather than rational reaction. Since the official's hat and boots had remained, it seemed probable replacing him wouldn't be too challenging. The steaming tunnel of devastated stone which was all that remained of his desk and the wall behind it would certainly be more expensive.

The situation had escalated from there, but a lightning dash for the passenger bird the dead man had indicated allowed Turmeric to alight on its wing before it accelerated to a pace he was unable to match, and spared many other officials from offering any sort of offence which might have been fatal to them.

Of course, riding on the beast's wing was terribly painful with the wind whipping by at such great speeds. Realizing that just standing out there simply wouldn't do, he knocked on the bird's door, and that had caused a panic within when his presence was noted. Still, the people aboard had been very polite, if strange, by putting on funny masks and slowing their conveyance down in order to open the door for him. He had commented on that, and how impressed he was by them, when he was led to a seat by a frightened, nervous young woman with a partially concealed blemish by her lips. They had called a doctor to assure his well-being at their destination, despite his assurance that he was more than well.

The blemished woman had even made a tongue-in-cheek remark about it being fortunate he was in the prime of his youth! There had been one unpleasant bit where he'd had to help the men steering the bird to point it East. They had been about to turn around the way they'd come, at one point. Still, giving them some pointers in keeping oriented while in flight had helped resolve the matter. It did well to remember that even he had needed to learn how to fly, once. He'd told them about the experience, too, to help ease their uncertainty about their performance. They'd still been uneasy, but things had got back on course and he was free to go back to speaking with that funny young woman with the discoloured mark.

The other passengers had mostly proven to be worriers, questioning what had happened to him. When he told them he was just going to drag his great-grandson and young wife kicking and screaming back to Quinghai province, it hadn't seemed to ease their concerns at all. When he finally spotted Japan out one of the small windows, it couldn't have come too soon. He bid the other passengers goodbye and made his way to the door. The young woman with the spot refused to allow him to leave mid-flight, but she had relented when he told her that should she not open the portal, he most assuredly would. She had a good memory for how he'd helped the men doing the steering to unlock their door, which was barring him from offering his much-needed advice.

And that is how Turmeric, twice-ruler of the Musk, found himself plummeting towards the Western coast of Japan, frost in his eyelashes, assuring himself that there was nothing undignified about screaming out his elation at this long fall. He decided that perhaps the funny young marked woman was right about this being dangerous. 'I shouldn't have abandoned my kite.'

Herb's eyes, still wet from when she'd cried earlier, filled up once more. She choked, and coughed, and began laughing, even as she sobbed. 'What the heck is wrong with her now?' For the life of her, Ranma couldn't figure out why the larger girl had just been set off. Despite the incredible awkwardness of the situation – and for Ranma there was very little more awkward than being a girl in the woman's side of a facility in hot water while another girl was crying her eyes out right in front of her because of something she'd said – she put a hand on Herb's shoulder and squeezed in what she hoped was a comforting gesture.

"Hey! Uhh... It's OK, really. I dunno what I said but I'm really really sorry! C'mon, please be OK?" The pleading words seemed to bear only minimal fruit. Herb, still shaking, looked back up at her. Even obscured by the inhuman eyes peering out of it, everything about the dragon girl's face made clear that whatever it had been was still affecting her strongly. She was visibly struggling to regain control of herself, but it didn't seem to be working. 'Oh, hell, whatever it is please let her not do something crazy. She isn't gonna be one of those safe crazies.' Nothing changed for what might have been the longest seconds in weeks. The taller girl didn't move to grasp, or cry on the smaller, and she didn't move to add to or detract from the single hand applying periodic pressure to the other's shoulder.

Ranma noticed that both Lime and Mint were peering over the barricades between the sex-segregated baths in mute terror. She was worried Herb might get worse if she drew attention to them, so she subtly tried to indicate that they should duck their heads. Seeing as how they didn't take the hint though, she hoped it was only their funeral when their mistress made the same observation. A growl from one of the guards led to a near-instantaneous pressure wave sundering their hiding place and sending the pair skipping across the water's surface before skidding off into the brush and downhill.

"I... am well. Very well." The words were croaked out by the foreign girl, who hadn't turned her gaze from Ranma's for an instant, and who still had a trail of tears running down her cheek. "Even a pri- prince of the Musk can shed tears in happiness. It is-" Herb's speech was interrupted by her sniffing loudly. "It is acceptable. I am... I am punished for foolishness, now. I did not hear what they all said. This is my fault, for being stupid. And now my punishment is success. Can't you see how funny and joyous it is?"

The pig-tailed girl was a bit sceptical of the sentiments expressed through words, given the speaker seemed to be suffering from the depressingly familiar and easily identified feelings of transcendent frustration and shame-induced rage. 'What the hell is she even going on about now? Does she think she can pretend she's happy or somethin'? Why the hell's she gotta pretend? Why'd she have a breakdown now? When are girls gonna make a lick of sense?' Instead of voicing any of those pertinent questions in face of the girl tossing around deadly ki blasts without preparation, hesitation, or calling them out in any way, Ranma went for a more neutral, "Yeah... I mean, what girl wouldn't be happy ta be able to have kids?" Accompanying it by a nervous laugh was inevitable; she knew it was a lame thing to say, after all.

For some reason that put a real smile on the Musk girl's face for a moment. 'Maybe it's related to her brand of crazy? Least it doesn't seem like the kind that leaves me half-dead. I feel bad for Lime and Mint, but you won't catch me askin' for their lot.' The taller girl then reached for her own towel to dry her eyes, given that Ranma's had long since been dropped in the water.

Herb chuckled out, "I thought you'd see why it was funny, too." Giving an awkward smile back, the Neriman martial artist tried to retract her arm so she could get back to a comfortable distance from the now stable-seeming Herb.

Only, the other girl's hand shot out and caught it, leaving it where it was. Herb's soft, but unwavering voice said, "I did not give you permission to stop." Without waiting for Ranma's response, she leaned back into the water and closed her eyes

Awkward as the request was, Ranma wasn't about to see if she could get the Dynastic heir going again. "Sure. Whatever you want, princess." The word was out before the redhead could think of how to arrest it. She'd been doing her best to avoid it, but as a jab that always seemed to work it was nearly impossible for a student of the Saotome School of Anything Goes to fail to make use of.

Instead of yelling, or getting violent, or anything else normal, Herb merely gave another choked laugh before saying with conviction. "Yes. I had that coming, and you do not even know why. A term of endearment, then... I have so much to think about; tell me one of your ridiculous stories as a distraction!"

"Ya know, Herb, these hot springs aren't so relaxing," she groused. Since it made the other girl burst out in proper laughter, she decided it was OK to laugh too. Only she saw the two bodyguards limping back to their side of the springs, Mint with some help from Lime, and so there was another possible threat averted. The resort staff had the presence of mind to not come out and investigate more closely, so that was enough things going right that no damage control would be needed on those fronts.

The Saotome recounted a less embarrassing edit of the martial arts takeout delivery contest she'd participated in, all while Herb grinned, laughed, or asked for clarification. Her mind though was elsewhere, doing what minds are prone to doing. 'It's kinda nice, being close to a girl who isn't throwing herself or other things at me. No crazy fathers in the way, no stupid, jealous rivals. Scary as hell, but a lot less intimidating without all the other crap getting involved.

'But man, she's really crazy pretty, even after bawling her eyes out. Even the really weird things only make it worse. How's someone get to be that good looking, and good at martial arts while being almost sane and being set to inherit some ancient kingdom?' Ranma smirked, then, and let herself get a bit more comfortable. 'Heh. 'course someone like her'd pick someone as handsome and awesome as me as a first choice. Maybe whoever she winds up with'll be a decent 'second best'.

"And like I keep saying, that Kuno guy is a complete moron. He still hasn't picked up on my curse, even though I changed while he was holding onto me." Her story, like many others on the long days of trekking toward Horai, seemed to make Herb pretty happy, and had the added benefit of taking her mind off the possibility of not getting the Ladle back. It was a possibility that now worried Ranma, too. 'For Herb's sake, I'm definitely gonna find bacon-bits and give him a piece of my mind. She seems to really want to be a mom. I guess it's possible Jusenkyo could do something good for someone.

'I bet this is what it would've been like, getting to know girls, if it hadn't been for the engagements and Shampoo and all that craziness. Trading stories, spending time doing things you both wanna do together, relaxing. Stupid old man. I like this.' Thinking more on that, Ranma bowed her head. 'Damn it. I kind of like her, even if she is always so freaking bossy. Maybe... maybe I would've seen how things went by dating her, instead of telling her flat-out no. Ahh hell, that's dangerous territory. Can't let her catch me looking at her, thinking things like that. We're already sharing a tent! She'll really get the wrong idea.' Suddenly Ranma was feeling just a little dizzier than moments ago. She couldn't believe how insistent the presently docile girl had been that they should continue with those sleeping arrangements, but she never exposed herself, or groped Ranma.

Tamping down hard on the part of her mind suggesting that, perhaps, the idea Herb might receive wasn't altogether wrong and securing the gates of the fortress of honour once more, she decided it was past time the two of them get out of the water, lest one or both of them should pass out. Either of them being sick would seriously mess up the massive conflict they were going to be having eventually. It was a fight she'd been looking forward to since getting surprised back in Nerima, and seeing more of the Musk's style had done much to inflame that. Much safer and more productive thoughts picked up from there. 'Right. She got the drop on me last time, but I'm gonna destroy her in the next real fight as long as I can get her riled up. Then I'll be a man again and I'll have beaten a bad-ass dragon princess... nah, more proper to go with dragon prince, 'cause the Musk don't do "girls". And it sounds more awesome. Pops'll probably quit harping on me for at least a day, maybe even two.'

"Hey, Herb. We've been in the water too long; it can really do a number on you." Ranma stood without hesitation, and got to shaking the tall, foreign girl's shoulder, also using it as support due to how unstable she was. The only response given was a small nod, before the Musk girl also stood with a tiny wobble and seemed to subconsciously wrap her towel back around herself. Following suit came naturally to Ranma, since the Musk prince seemed to have a serious hang-up about nudity on anyone's part. Come to it, she wished the two bodyguards travelling with them shared the same reservations. 'Perverts.'

The pair dried off in silence, dressed, then made their way to the room they were sharing. That Herb had sprung for two mattresses without prompting helped the pig-tailed martial artist's confidence in her current companion's honesty along a great deal. Not being stupid, Ranma knew that the strange girl still wanted something to happen between them. That she did no more than leave the possibility open without complaint when it failed to manifest made that a little less uncomfortable than it might have been.

By one wall an ugly, orange-yellow envelope taunted Ranma, and reminded her that sleep would be short in the coming days. Akane had been true to her word, and mailed Ranma both class notes and instructions for any out of class assignments received here; it's why the resort had been on the path they had chosen, after all. "Urk," was her only immediate response to the heinously large stack of notes that spilled forth from the envelope. The smug thing drifted to the ground and left the weight of its many, many assignments on the pigtailed girl's shoulders.

"Good night," Herb mumbled, from where she was clearly already drowsing off while Ranma was still looking over the full workload the last few weeks had bestowed upon her.

"Night," she replied, and then lost interest until she finished her inventory.

Her first thought amounted to wondering how her History teacher expected her to manage a group exercise from another island altogether. The second was that, given the workload she was faced with, there would be little room for sparring unless she read the notes while running. 'Excellent peripheral vision and broad spacial awareness reaction training,' Saotome Genma had called it back when Ranma was still an elementary school student. It had prepared the Saotome heir for some of the more confused melees that occasionally broke out in Nerima. Her third thought was that, since Herb was not presently sleeping on her bag as a pillow, there would never be a better opportunity to root through her things for secret techniques, manuals, and weaknesses to take advantage of in the final showdown with her.

'Sorry princess,' Ranma thought at the girl's sleeping body. 'But it's Anything Goes, and you should be honoured I consider you good enough to take every advantage I can.'

Now, unlike that first disappointing night, there was light to see the contents of the bag by. The always clean change of outer clothes Herb kept, courtesy of Mint, lay atop of a box filled with just over two million yen and almost twice that value in yuan. 'And she was complaining about money? Jeez.' There were scrolls the Anything Goes student could make neither heads nor tails of, a pair of matching jade figurines wrapped in thick, soft cloth, some bottles of ink, a writing quill, a tiny booklet stuffed with loose paper, and a remarkable array of hair care tools, including a hand mirror. There were also some feminine hygiene products that brought back terrible memories of some of her earliest days with the Tendos.

The booklet was a clear disappointment. It was all in Chinese, and despite having visited the country, Ranma had a limited grasp of what all the characters meant to them. The loose papers, however, were in a mix of Chinese and formal, over-complicated Japanese.

"So You're Suddenly a Woman," she mouthed.

Two crimson, reptilian eyes appeared in the hand mirror she had yet to return to the sack. "Do you think it is a good translation?"

The icy tone of the question was not very reassuring.

"But... it just feels like we did nothing. How can we say we aided prince Herb when we just sat around and watched?"

Mint's nervousness and excitation was grating on Lime. If his partner hadn't been taking such an unusual pleasure in falling asleep at his own discretion lately, the massive bodyguard might have helped him along to ease his own growing headache.

"Mint," he explained with exaggerated patience, giving ample pause between ideas. "Nothing works. We know that, so we should do that. We do not know if anything else works, so we should not do that."

Mint, who had been hopping from foot to foot throughout the halting, simple explanation, persisted, face scrunched up with uncertainty. "But what if he is made too unhappy? I like Ranma, but he cannot be content that he is unable to match our master, even when she is holding herself back as much as she is. What if he leaves her in shame?"

Lifting himself from his own sleeping mat, Lime donned the complimentary robe he'd found there on entry. It was softer than anything he had ever touched. He rested his massive hands on the windowsill, and looked upon the Japanese countryside spread out before him. For all that Mint obviously had something wrong, what he had wrong was not in any way apparent.

'A husband must be able to best his wife.' As far as the Musk knew, this was a truth. But Herb was descended from dragons. 'The royal family is almost unbeatable. I was celebrated for defeating her twice when we were still children. It has not happened since.' It didn't seem reasonable to expect Ranma, who had none of the advantages of Musk heritage, to close the vast gulf in power. 'I would do no better than Ranma is doing now, though. Worse, I think. He is fantastic.'

As far as Lime understood it, Herb would technically be Ranma's husband. 'Do technicalities count?' If Ranma were considered as a woman, she was absolutely ideal. She was as close a match to Herb as was likely to crop up outside the royal family itself, but Lime was certain it would rankle at the pigtailed youth who so insisted that she was a man, and the best.

'Many people who are not Musk do not even consider the martial arts in their marriages,' the tiger clansman allowed, ignoring whatever new problem his partner had invented to distract himself from the first. 'It is likely that Herb will have to think that way, since she will not find someone as good as her, only close. If she already thinks that way...'

Smacking his fists into windowsill lightly, leaving knuckle-shaped grooves, Lime turned and explained what he'd been thinking to Mint, who was rambling off about something altogether different once more. "Our prince knows that she cannot be beaten. She's holding back so Ranma can become good enough to beat her like that! He has never seen her fight at her best." His understanding of the situation explained the larger guard sat down to rest. Sorting out a puzzle always helped ease pressure for him.

Mint readily dropped the new topic of his endless worry, something about cooking, to return to what he'd just had explained to him with a little more hope. "Women are subtle and crafty creatures... I did not think to lump the prince in with them; that was foolish of me. Ranma will need a lot of help to get there by the time we reach Horai Mountain, though." So agitated was the wolf clansman that he was hopping from foot to foot at almost imperceptible speeds.

Shrugging, Lime sighed out, "then we help him, like Herb obviously wants. Even she is helping him every day."

"I guess. They get along so well that they will surely be ready to wed after that duel of theirs. Ranma stops her from being sad; I wonder if he will teach me how to treat a wife one day? Still, there is so much that will destroy tradition about their union!"

"Our prince is a woman. She will be king one day. Our current king made this so. If he is not concerned with tradition, why should we be?" The last was a growled out challenge. After that glorious soak, only interrupted by one lazy energy blast, Lime knew he was destined for the most restful night he'd had in months.

When no serious response came, he lay back down and closed his eyes. Mint seemed to follow suit, and all was right with the world

Moments later, the panicked shrieks of one woman, and the furious cries of another showed Lime's headache the way home.

Author's Note: Here it is, at last, after much longer than I'm happy with. I'd like to blame it all on circumstance, but I really went and got myself distracted by deeply irrelevant things. At least they're slowing down, finally.

I have received numerous reviews, but have only responded to particularly long ones, or really most within the first couple weeks of a chapter release. One review stood out that I really did need to answer for my own benefit.

Ryo-Wolf: You know, I haven't the foggiest how that happened. I think it's quite probably something that I read in a separate fanfic that I liked so much more than the canon scenario that I completely edited out the canon scenario. I'll have to be more careful about that in the future, thanks!

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the new chapter. A lot more of the underlying metaphysics are beginning to show, and bit by bit the Musk culture, and the history that created the current storyline, are being revealed.

Since it was not patently obvious to all readers, and resulted in a fairly embarrassing review, and should be utterly unmistakable at this point, much of Herb's change in personality and curious acquisition of virtues is as a result of being cursed to change into a social animal, rather than of changing into a female one in specific.

Read, Review, what have you. Also, I discovered I was not accepting anonymous reviewers previously. Well, Anon, now you too can give me a piece of your mind. As before, any and all help is greatly appreciated.