I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or., Naoko Takeuchi.


"A man could live with a reptile [slavery], even place his own well-being in the creature's care. That wasn't easy, but it could be done. What was truly hard — exhausting, after a while — was the need to keep insisting the scaly damn thing was warm and furry. As if it were a pet instead of a vicious wild beast that could turn on you at any moment."

1824: The Arkansas War, Eric Flint


A pigtailed boy of about eighteen years of age and his father walked, almost stumbling, toward the Tendo dojo. Weary, aching in every joint, filthy, and stinking of sweat — they were more than ready for the dojo's furo. It had been a very good training trip.

As they turned around the last corner toward home, Ranma heard his name called out and looked around to find a brown-haired boy about his own age running up, one of the few non-martial artists he could claim as something resembling a friend. "Hey, Hiroshi, what's up?" Ranma asked.

"Ranma, you look like you've been out of town for awhile, have you heard about Kuno-dono?" Hiroshi asked eagerly.

Ranma shook his head. "Heard what?"

"He's dead!" Hiroshi said excitedly.

"Dead!"

"Yeah! Rumor says when his doctors told him he had heart problems he refused to believe them and change his lifestyle. Turns out they were right."

"Wow," Ranma said thoughtfully. "So the loon is dead. So what happens to his school?"

"Oh, Tatewaki has already announced that the current level of Kuno support for the family school will continue, he's directed the Kuno family steward to hire a new principal. So it sounds like we get to keep the top-notch teachers and lose the lunatic in charge — cool, huh?"

"Yeah, almost too good ta be true, there's gotta be a hitch," Ranma mumbled, then yawned. " 'Scuse me, been a great trip, gonna need a good night's sleep ta recover. Catch ya at school tomorrow?"

Hiroshi nodded. "Yeah, sure, sorry. Just thought you'd like to know as soon as possible."

Ranma chuckled. "Ya mean ya couldn't wait ta be the first ta tell me. Don't worry 'bout it, see ya tomorrow." Hiroshi waved and headed off down the road, and the two Saotomes moved on wearily, their destination now in sight.

As the Saotomes walked through the gate toward the front door, Ranma felt something in him relax and instantly glanced at his father out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, the bald martial artist was stealthily setting up for a lock-and-throw. Ranma simply shifted his right arm into a position to block, and Genma huffed in disappointment. "You're getting observant, boy."

"And you're gettin' predictable," Ranma responded, then glanced to his left and ahead to see Kasumi on her knees tending to the flowers lining the walk. "Hey, Kasumi, how's it goin'?" he called out, then stumbled when she looked up at the approaching pair.

Kasumi looked ghastly: her hair was dull and disheveled, her eyes were puffy and leaking tears, her cheeks rubbed a bit raw, and the smile she'd pasted on was a horrible caricature of her normal serene expression.

"Kasumi, what's wrong?" Ranma asked, kneeling down beside the older girl.

She sat back on her heels and scrubbed at her face. "Father committed seppuku last night, with Akane as his second," she said.

The Saotomes gaped at the ponytailed girl. "Seppuku? Why?!" Genma asked.

"He felt his failures as family head and the sensei of the dojo demanded it, to satisfy honor," Kasumi responded quietly. "And it bought us another week for mourning rituals."

"Another week? What happens in a week?" Ranma asked as gently as he could.

Kasumi flinched. "Ask Nabiki, she's in her room. She can explain better than I can," she responded. "Just don't try to ask Akane — she performed well last night, but she ... she is not yet whole."

Ranma nodded, then abruptly pulled the erath-haired girl into a hug.

Kasumi clung to him for a long moment, then pushed him away. "Go," she ordered, "you need to learn what's going on." Then, as Ranma rose and he and his father hurried toward the front door, Kasumi called out with a tremulous laugh, "But first get cleaned up, you stink!"

/\

Hastily cleaned and dressed in a fresh set of his usual red and black Chinese clothing, with Genma at his side, Ranma knocked on Nabiki's door, to be answered by a shouted, "Go away, I'm busy!"

"Nabiki, it's Ranma," the pigtailed boy responded. "Kasumi said you'd tell us what's going on."

There was a long silence, then the sound of a chair being pushed back. The door flew open, and the middle Tendo threw herself into a stunned Ranma's arms. "You've been gone a month!" she shouted into his shoulder. "Where have you been?!"

"I told you all when we left that it would be a month," Genma asserted impatiently. "So what happened?"

The pageboy-styled girl sighed and let go of Ranma, and motioned the two into her room. She headed back to her computer while they sat on her bed. Ranma examined the middle Tendo as she sat down with her chair backwards and slouched down with her arms on the chair's back. He was almost as shocked at what he saw as he had been by Kasumi. Unlike her older sister Nabiki was as neat as ever, but something about her had died — the sharp, alert, slightly mocking personality that had seemed to live behind her eyes was gone, replaced by a dull, guilty, hopeless look.

"Yeah, you did tell us," she muttered. "That's partly why Dad ... though what you can do ..." She stopped, took a deep breath, and straightened. "All right, I don't know what you can do, but here's what happened.

"It started with Kuno-dono's death less than a week after you left. Tatewaki observed the traditional week of mourning, and then assumed his new position as lord of the Kuno estates. Have you heard about the school?" The two Saotomes nodded, and Nabiki continued, "That was his first act as lord. His second was to spring a trap that his personal accountants must have been planning for months, and I didn't see a hint of it coming."

"Nabiki —" Ranma started, but the middle Tendo stopped him with an upheld hand.

"I didn't see it," she harshly insisted. "I don't know how I could have, or what I could have done if I had, but it was my job to handle the family's financial affairs and I didn't get even so much as a hint! You see, the Kuno family's financial handlers, at Tatewaki's orders, bought up the Tendo debt — all of it, including the loans I picked up through cover identities and thought safely hidden. He's demanded that the two 'loves of his life' " — her lips twisted — "be freed of the influence of the 'foul sorcerer Saotome' to accept joining his service as full service, permanent slaves or ..." she paused and gulped, then finished softly, "he will have all the family assets sold to pay off the acquired debts — including the family — immediately. We would have been seized this morning, if father hadn't committed seppuku yesterday and given us a week for mourning. All three of us tried to talk Father out of it, but he insisted — he said his total failure as a father and sensei required it, and that it would give you time to get here and save us."

For a long moment the two Saotomes simply sat and stared at her, then Ranma shook himself out of his befuddlement and asked, "How bad is it?"

"It's as bad as it can be," Nabiki answered. "I've been playing off one loan against another, doing whatever it took to keep us afloat for a couple of years. I was sure I could keep it up until you took over the dojo and opened classes again, but —" She broke off with a half-sob, but when Ranma moved toward her, her glare froze him in place.

"Anyway," she continued, "I figure that if we sell off all the property and all three of us sisters as temporary, limited use slaves, the debts will be fully paid off in maybe twenty years, more likely thirty — especially if Kuno pushes down the bidding at the slave auction by letting it be known that we're marked as his. At which time, we'd all three be out on the streets, going on forty to fifty years old, with only the shirts on our backs.

"Of course, if we went for temporary full use status, we could hold onto the property and pay off the debt in maybe five or ten years — but Akane would be certain to be acquired by Kuno. I doubt he'd be able to hold down the price, but for me and Kasumi he wouldn't want to and he'd pay whatever it took to buy Akane's contract. Hells, that alone would probably bring in enough to bring it down to five years," she finished bitterly.

The Saotome men simply sat and stared for a long moment, then Ranma stood. "So we have six days ta come up with an answer?" he asked. At Nabiki's affirmative he headed for the door, his father following him. He called over his shoulder, "Don't worry, Nabiki, yer dad's death won't be wasted."

"You have a plan?" she asked, hope warring with the guilt and despair in her eyes.

He turned in the doorway, stepping out of his father's way to smile back at her reassuringly. "Not yet," he said confidently, "but I will — count on it."

/oOo\

Ranma lay on his back on the roof of the Tendo home and stared up at the peaceful stars that had been his friends for so many years, most of those years his only friends. He heard a soft thud to his right and turned to find Akane rising from her jump to the rooftop, and sat up as she walked toward him. His raven-haired fiancée sat down beside him, and for a time the two simply stared out into the night.

Finally, Akane said, "You didn't come see me when you got back."

"Kasumi said not ta bother ya about what happened, to ask Nabiki. And after she told us well … I've been up here thinkin'." He turned to look at the youngest Tendo, and added, "But you're right, what ya had ta do — I should a' come see ya. I'm sorry."

Akane drew in a shuddering breath and hugged her knees to her chest. Ranma put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against him, and laid her head on his shoulder. "It's all right," she murmured, "I've given up on you demonstrating any social graces."

For a time, the two sat with Akane leaning against her fiancé and staring silently out across Nerima. Finally she asked, "So have you come up with a plan?" She felt Ranma's nod along the top of her head.

"Yeah, I have," the aqua-transexual boy responded.

"So what is it?" she softly asked when he failed to continue.

"I can't tell ya yet, there's some people I need ta talk to first, see if it'll work." Ranma answered quietly. Besides, he thought, ya aren't gonna like it at all, why spoil the moment?

/oOo\

In the kitchen of possibly the most popular hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Nerima district, the Cat Café (though a certain okonomiyaki chef might dispute the claim), a small, wrinkled, old, white-haired Chinese woman bounced around from stove to counter to shelves, preparing for the morning rush. With all the energy she was putting into her labors, a casual spectator would never have known that she was badly distracted and going through the motions as her mind focused on a raven-haired, pigtailed boy. The news of what was happening with the Tendos wasn't yet widely known, but in restaurants customers talk, and a certain purple-haired beauty's broken Japanese covered a level of comprehension and sharp mind few people recognized. So the Chinese Amazons that owned and staffed the Cat Café knew of the new Kuno-dono's move against the Tendos, and in the kitchen Ku Lon was pondering — and dreading — the probable results when Ranma returned and learned of the foreclosure and Soun's death.

Suddenly the sound of someone hammering on the café's front door jolted the Amazon elder from her thoughts. Pausing, Ku Lon listened and nodded in satisfaction as she heard one of her assistants approaching the door. "Honored customer, café not yet open," she heard her heir say in the soft, musical voice that charmed customers and brought the tips rolling in (the former war -leader carefully ignored the part played by her heir's skimpy, tight-fitting clothing). "Please come back one hour, and we give special treat."

"Shampoo, it's Ranma," returned the voice of the boy Ku Lon had just been obsessing about. "I need ta talk ta the ol' ghoul, an' it can't wait."

Ku Lon briefly closed her eyes with a sigh, as Xian Pu, worry carefully hidden as befitted an elder- and war-leader-in-training, appeared in the doorway. "Great-grandmother, Ranma —"

"I heard, child. Let him in, I will be out momentarily. Have Mu Tse put up the 'closed for emergency until further notice' sign, there's no telling how long this will take."

"Yes, great-grandmother," Xian Pu replied and vanished back into the dining room yelling for 'stupid Mousse' while Ku Lon started turning off all the burners on the stove.

/\

"So I got a plan, but I need yer help," Ranma finished from where he sat across from possibly his primary arch-nemesis, her purple-haired heir seated on one side of her great-grandmother and Xian Pu's love-besotted would-be husband Mu Tse on the other.

Ku Lon leaned forward and gazed speculatively at the pigtailed boy. "I must say I am surprised to find you here, son-in-law," she mused. "I would have thought that with such a tale you would be charging into the Kuno estate seeking that delusional idiot's head."

"Yeah, that's what I started ta do," Ranma responded. "But on the way there a thought occurred ta me — what happens after I kill him? It's not like the debt just disappears."

"A good thought," Ku Lon said approvingly. Finally, the boy is beginning to think! "And what happens then?"

"It'd depend on Kodachi," Ranma said. "If she really thinks that I'm in love with her and stickin' with Akane out a' honor, then nothin' changes fer the Tendos except the offer fer a way out switches ta me marrying Kodachi, instead. If she really knows I l-l-l-like Akane" — beside Ku Lon, Xian Pu flinched slightly — "then the demand probably includes her moving away, too."

"And this is not an improvement?" the Amazon elder questioned.

Ranma gave a sharp, bitter bark of laughter. "Yeah, it looks like it oughta be, right? The problem is, while Kuno's a delusional idiot, at least he has a sense of honor. Kodachi, though, she'd probably insist I marry her first, and what if she decides the debt would make a good hold, just in case? We'd never get out from under."

"So challenge the delusional fool!" Mu Tse asserted. "Offer him his 'pigtailed goddess' if you lose and forgiveness of the Tendo debt and abandonment of his pursuit of Akane if you win."

Ranma laughed again, more light-heartedly this time, shaking his head at Mu Tse. "Maybe Shampoo ought ta try that with you, see how well it works! No, he'd just refuse ta admit I beat him — the only way that'll change is if I kill him an' let him talk it over with Kami-sama, an' then we're back ta Kodachi."

"Airen bring Tendo girls to China, to village," Xian Pu burst out. "Then Tendos safe, Shampoo have Airen, all good!"

Ku Lon stiffened. Here it comes, she thought as she watched Ranma. I'll have to tell him 'no', and Xian Pu will be a long time forgiving me.

But Ranma just sat and gazed at Xian Pu. Then, when she began to squirm, finally Ranma answered simply, "No."

The aged matriarch stared at him in shock.

"But why Airen no do this?" the purple-haired girl demanded incredulously, and Ranma shrugged.

" 'Cause if yer village elders are smart they'd throw us out, and if they didn't it wouldn't be safe. Kuno may only be a lord, but thanks to the Hawaii plantations he's the richest lord in the Empire. He'd have no problem hirin' a small army ta come after us, and the Joketsuzoku ain't that far inta China. And the Chinese don't have anything on the border ta stop him. Why should they? The area's so out a' the way, not even smugglers use it — the only reason the Shogun hasn't snatched it up is he doesn't want it. No, Kuno'd just keep throwin' people at us 'til he won, or he weakened the village to the point the Musk finish the job for him. The Tendos could end up hoping that he wins, or surrender to his men — it'd probably be better than what the Musk would do ta them.

"And that's assumin' we actually get there, he's got people watching the dojo. Me and pop can lose 'em easy, Akane maybe, Nabiki and Kasumi forget it."

Ku Lon nodded, ignoring her great-granddaughter's intreating look. "Well reasoned, son-in-law, when you actually use your mind for things besides fighting you do very well — as things stand the Tendos cannot use the village as a refuge. But there is another option, what of the Underground Railroad that I have heard of, that the Americans run? Could you not seek refuge there? Considering how the American propaganda rails against slavery — sexual slavery especially, which is what Kuno is insisting on — I would think they would be happy to help you, and the United States is much farther away than China."

Ranma asked, "Do you know how to contact 'em?" He chuckled as Ku Lon simply shook her head. "Well, I do." As the other three stared he shrugged. "Hey, I ain't a part a' the Underground, but I agree with 'em on slavery and I've helped them out a time or two.

"Still, it wouldn't work. First, there's the same problem with gettin' the Tendos ta China — not near as bad, but it's there, and the Underground doesn't need that kinda heat, either.

"But even if that weren't true, there's another problem — the reason the Shogun's investigators have never been all that concerned about the Underground Railroad. Ya see, the US are on the other side of an ocean. That means any slaves smuggled ta the US have ta be taken by boat or plane, an' that really cuts down on the number a' escaped slaves that can be taken out. An' that means there's a waiting list. Sure, if I asked the Tendos'd go on the list, but it's a long one, and the only way they'd jump ta the head a' the line is 'cause of abuse. From what Nabiki said on how fast they'd get the debt paid off, if they went fer full service they'd probably be free before their names came up."

Ku Lon smiled and shook her head. "Very well, you've told us all the escapes that won't work, so what will work and what is our part in it?"

Ranma shrugged. "It's simple enough — he's gonna get one a' the slaves he's demanded, just not the one he expects right now."

The three Amazons stared at him, Mu Tse in confusion, the other two in dawning horror. Stuttering, Xian Pu asked, "A-A-Airen not mean become g-girl-type slave of Sword Boy?"

Ranma nodded. "Yep, that's exactly what I mean. I figure I'll tell him that if he writes off all the Tendo debt and swears on his honor ta leave Akane alone he'd get his pigtailed girl as a slave an' the 'foul sorcerer' disappears, while if he doesn't Akane would probably kill herself before she'd allow him ta own her and he'd never see his pigtailed girl again. He'll go along."

"But Ranma," Ku Lon protested as Xian Pu curled up in her seat, hiding her face, "Kuno will demand that the slavery be full service, and with the level of debt the Tendos owe it'll be the next thing to permanent. Besides, sooner or later his delusions will force him to again pursue Akane, whatever oath he swears."

"True, I'm counting on it," Ranma agreed, nodding. "When that happens I'll be in the perfect position ta deal with him — on the inside a' the Kuno household, with the Tendo debt cleared."

"And what of the curse?" Mu Tse asked. "Sooner or later hot water will find you, however hard you try to avoid it. What then?"

"I suspect that is why we are having this conversation," Ku Lon said dryly, "is it not, Ranma?"

Ranma nodded. "One a' the reasons, yeah. I need ta get the curse locked an' figured you'd know how ta do it — an' not the Cat's Tongue, just avoiding hot water won't work. Though it'd be nice if the curse could be unlocked later."

"Yes," Ku Lon said thoughtfully, "I can do it. I'll have to go shopping for some unusual ingredients and the preparations will take several days, but it can be done." And keep you at least a friend of the Joketsuzoku, if nothing else. "As for unlocking it later — possibly. The curse does not like to be tampered with, and while we have a way to reverse the potion, the effects are ... chancy. Sometimes it works immediately, sometimes not at all, sometimes it waits anywhere from a few days to a few years before unlocking. And sometimes it changes the trigger — makes the water needed hotter, or colder, or not water at all — once, it was an emotional state that activated the curse, and another that reversed it.

"But Ranma, there is something you are forgetting — the Adjustment all slaves in the Empire go through. The sexual Adjustment for full use slaves won't make a difference, but the general Adjustment to protect masters from being attacked will. When Kuno returns to his pursuit of Akane, you will be unable to attack him."

"Nah, I didn't forget," Ranma said, "that's the other reason I'm here. I figure there's a way ta break the Adjustment, the Cat Fist. But I'll need Shampoo's help."

Xian Pu raised a tear-streaked face and nodded firmly. "Shampoo do whatever needed. Just tell what."


The chapter title comes from the song by Steve McDonald, off his "Highland Farewell" album about the Highland Clearances.

By law, the landlord can become the ghost of every crofter's home.
By law their little cots can be dark dens of dirt and misery.
Can law be law, when based on wrong? Can law be law, when for the strong?
Can law be law, when landlords stand rack-renting mankind off the land?

By law, the tax upon their toil is squandered on an alien soil.
By law, their daughters, sons and wives are doomed to slavish, drudgery's lives.
By law, all food producing glens are changed from farms to cattle pens.
This is your law, whereby a few are shielded in the deeds they do!
By law!