The Thing About Blondes
Niki "NeeP" Paradis
Chapter Four:  Another Switch in the Roles

    A suspicious group of five people were heading towards the palace.  It was dark and the island's native trees and bushes made it difficult to see any of the five people at all.  If anyone did see and was asked about the group, the witness would only be able to say that the group consisted of four women and a man, and that two of the women were as tall as the palace guards were.
    Jiro adjusted the strap of her borrowed armour.  "I hope his works," she muttered to Ukyou.
    "Well, Jiro-chan," said Ukyou, "with the island on the lookout for Urma or at least, a runaway recruit, it seems only natural that you should wear the uniform."
    "Yeah," commented the native girl.  "By now, the whole platoon should have been a description of me.  But they won't recognise me out of the amour."  Urma picked self-consciously at the sleeveless shirt that she borrowed from Jiro.  "And most of the officers don't really pay attention to the actual recruits.  So, you're probably safer in the uniform than out of it.  No one really sees the person past the uniform and without it, it's pretty obvious that you're not a native."
    "Okay, if you say so..."
    "Besides, the helmet will hide your ears," said Ukyou.
    "And I doubt that anyone will notice the umbrella," Akane tried to say convincingly.
    "You really think so?" asked the tall blonde girl, fingering the strap to her umbrella holster.
    "Not in the dark at any rate," Ranma put in his two cents.

    Soon they reached the servants' entrance to the palace grounds.  Like everywhere else that they have seen, a woman in amour also guarded it.
    "Who goes there?!?" barked the woman.
    "Hey," whispered Jiro.  "What do I say?"
    "Tell her that you were out looking for me," whispered the runaway. "And don't forget to say, Ma'am."
    "This is recruit, Jilla," said Jiro confidently, "Ma'am.  Returning from the search for Recruit Urma.  Ma'am."
    "Who are those with you?" commanded the guardswoman.
    Akane, Ukyou, Ranma and Urma started to sweat.
    "These are the relations and friends of Recruit Urma.  Ma'am.  Captain Josi wanted them brought in for questioning.  Ma'am."
    The woman nodded.  "Very well, take them in, put them under guard."
    "Yes Ma'am," said Jiro.  "Move!" she barked to her 'prisoners'.
    They marched through the gate, past the guardswoman and into the back door of the castle. Akane was wide-eyed at the thought of what just happened.
    "We made it through..." she said in a hushed voice.
    "But we haven't found Ryo-chan yet," muttered Ukyou.
    "Y'know, this might be a good time to split up," suggested Jiro.  "Soon, everyone will be onto us.  We won't have much time."
    "Good point," Ranma replied.  "Where do you think it would be most likely for Ryouga to be right now?" he asked Urma.
    The native girl looked thoughtful for a moment.  "He would most likely be either in the rooms where the Princess placed him or at the banquet that was to be held in his honour."
    Ranma nodded.  "Okay then.  I guess you should go with Jiro and Ucchan up to uh, where ever the banquet's bein' held, and Akane and me will go look for P-chan in his room..."
    Akane effectively placed a well-aimed punch to the side of her husband's head.  "Stop calling him that, you baka," she muttered.
    The two groups went their separate ways.

    It was dinnertime.  The tables were set with the largest banquet that Misha has ever seen.  It was obvious to her that the princess really wanted to impress that Japanese boy that they had brought to the Island of Fumei.  Celeane had brought in the island's finest musicians to play traditional music--which combined an African tribal beat with the guitars and flutes of Spanish dance tunes.  The dining hall was decorated with flowers and silk.  There hasn't been such a large celebration since the Princess' birth.
    Unfortunately, it was obvious that the young man didn't want to be there and he didn't really seem to notice anything but the huge roast pig that was at the centre of the banquet table, and that appeared to make him sick.
    Misha studied the foreigner.  Aside from the greenish cast to his face, the young man could be considered extremely handsome.  He was tall and muscular; which would definitely mark him a worthwhile conquest for any woman on the island. With serious hazel eyes, delicately pointed ears, and actual fangs, he would have been considered a definite catch for any of the noblewomen.  But the blonde hair made him exquisite.  It was obvious that the princess was working on his appearance as well.  His originally pale golden skin had darkened into a deep golden brown, and his once straight blonde hair was already curling due to the island's humidity.  When he came, the young man was wearing well-worn travelling clothes-- an old tunic and tattered leggings.  Now, he was wearing the baggy pants and loose shirt that the people of the island would wear for festivals.  Instead of the ugly mustard yellow that he wore before, his new outfit was done in various shades of green and it set off his thick blonde hair very nicely.  On his head was a golden circlet with an emerald set in front, marking him as one of the princess' favourites.
    As the General of the Royal Guards, Misha knew that it was her duty to oversee the safety of the Princess as she was sworn to do.  But she had to admit to herself that the Princess' wild ideas and romantic notions made the job extremely difficult.  Not to mention that it made it extremely difficult for her to personally oversee the troops that she commanded.  She knew that many of the people were not ecstatic about the thought of the princess marrying a foreigner and that they felt that she was not paying enough attention to the problems of her people.  Misha agreed with the people over Celeane's neglect, but it was still her job to protect her charge.

    Ryouga Hibiki was not a happy person.
    First off, he felt ridiculous.  He was the main guest at a banquet held in his honour.  The other people, who he suspected, were members of the Royal Court or something similar, were all looking at him in curiosity.  He also noticed that the majority of the other people were women, and their gaze reminded Ryouga that he was a sort of prize that they would never get a hold of.  It was upsetting to be looked on as an object, instead of a person
    From casual observation, he noticed that Fumei was a matriarchal society, which meant that the men were second class citizens.  It was the woman who was expected to earn the money, to make the top decisions, to succeed at their jobs and to acquire trophy husbands if the occasion required it.  It was unnerving, especially since Japan (as well as most of the other countries that he ever visited) was still pretty much a patriarchal society, even though women were more equal there than the men were in this country.
    He decided to concentrate on following Celeane instead.  Not that he wanted to go with her, but he decided that the last thing that he wanted right about now was to get lost.  The princess led him over to a seat at the main banquet table and gestured for him to sit down.  He did so, his eyes locked on the huge roast pig that laid on a huge platter in a very cliché manner --complete with an apple in its mouth.  His stomach turned and he had to look away.
    He turned to the wall behind him.  It was extensively mirrored and he reasoned that the mirrors were there to give the illusion that the main hall was even larger than it already was.  He saw his reflection in it and flinched at the strangeness of it.  But he forced himself to study the changes.
    The reflection that stared back at him was that of a well-built young man of nineteen years with Asian features and hazel eyes.  That was where the familiarity ended.  The person in the mirror had deeply tanned skin and thick long blonde hair that hung loose down his back.  It was to Ryouga's dismay that the hair was starting to curl.  He figured that it was probably due to the island's humidity, but it was curling faster than it really ought to be.  The figure in the mirror was also wearing a loose sleeveless forest green shirt and baggy pants of an even darker green.  On his head was a simple gold circlet with a single emerald set in the front.  Around his neck were simple gold chokers, layered for effect.  And on his feet were simple sandals of green and gold.
    All in all, there was a stranger in the mirror.  Ryouga sighed bitterly. The more mirrors that I encounter, the less I recognise myself in them, he thought to himself.
    He turned back to the table and concentrated on watching his plate.  He wondered briefly if anyone was coming after him --as embarrassing as that would be (He's the guy, after all, dammit.  He was supposed to do the rescuing, not the other way around.). Hopefully, Jiro would be on her way --that is, if she knew where he has been taken.  He had doubted that Ukyou would be able to get away from her business to come after him --after all, the business was everything to her.  He closed his eyes briefly and concentrated on finding a chi pattern that he could recognise.  He gave up shortly after that.  There were too many strange people near-by and he was nowhere as good at 'Tracking' as Jiro was.  He wondered again about how he was going to get out of his present situation.

    Ranma and Akane were searching through the rooms of the guest wing.  Most of the rooms were unoccupied and the ones that weren't didn't have Ryouga in them either.  After a few embarrassed apologies and having a pillow or two thrown at him, Ranma was wondering if there might be an easier way to go about their search.  He leaned against a wall and watched Akane open a smaller door in the main hall.
    "I really don't think that you'll find even Ryouga in a closet, Akane," he said.  "Even if he got into one it won't take him long to find his way back out."  Ranma paused for a moment.  "Then again, we are talking about Ryouga here..."
    "Shut-up, baka," muttered Akane as she began to pull out various items from the closet.
    "Whatcha got there?" asked Ranma curiously.
    "Ryouga-kun's stuff.  His clothes are all here, and even his backpack."
    "Oh?  No Ryouga?"
    "No."
    "No P-chan either?"
    "No!"  Akane threw one of the shoes she found at the smug-looking face of her husband.  Ranma caught it easily.  "Now, you can carry Ryouga-kun's pack."
    Ranma swallowed.  "His pack?" he asked.
    "Of course, baka.  You don't really expect me to carry it, do you?"
    Ranma walked up to the closet and looked in at the huge backpack.
    "Do you know how heavy that thing is?" he asked.
    "What's the matter, Ranma?" Akane mocked.  "Not strong enough?  Ryouga-kun carries it around all the time.  Even Jiro can pick it up."
    Ranma clamped his mouth shut.  Ryouga's way stronger than me, was one thing he did not say, not wanting his wife to think of him as a wimp.  And Jiro's almost as strong as him, was the other thing he did not say, for the same reason, only more so.  He bent over and heaved the backpack on, complete with two tonne (or so it seemed to Ranma) umbrella.  He stood straight and concentrated on making the carrying of the backpack look easy.  Apparently it worked, because Akane didn't notice the difficulties.
    "Let's keep going," suggested Akane as she continued down the hall.  Ranma nodded and managed not to stumble as he followed.

    Ukyou, Jiro and Urma reached the balcony that overlooked the reception hall where the guests were all being served.
    "I really can't accompany you any further," said the native girl regretfully.  "If I show up in there, regardless of whether or not I'm wearing my uniform..."
    "I understand, Urma-san.  Thank-you," Jiro said softly.
    "Yes, thank-you," Ukyou smiled at the big girl.  "You've been a big help."
    The ex-recruit quickly left the other girls and disappeared into the shadows.
    Both Jiro and Ukyou watched her go, then turned back to the balcony.  They crept up to the rail and peered over it.
    "Do you see him yet, Ukyou?" asked Jiro.
    "No...  Not yet...  Wait!  I think I see him!"  Ukyou sounded astonished.  "That's Ryouga?"  Anger then crept into her voice.  "What did that bitch do to him?!?"
    "Hmmm?" asked Jiro.  She looked around the room until she saw her brother.  She had trouble recognising the young man with the blonde curls and tan as Ryouga.  But the ears helped identify him.  "If you mean about the greenish cast to his face, that probably has to do with the pork in the middle of the banquet table."
    "He looks so miserable, Jiro.  Even though he did get a very nice tan..." Ukyou's voice went thoughtful.
    "Hey, Ukyou!  Looks like Celeane-kun is about to make a statement..."
    "Oh?"
    They watched as the princess stood up and tapped her glass with a fork.  The whole room went quiet.
    "My people," she started.  "I have a very important announcement to make."
    Jiro and Ukyou concentrated on the princess' words.
    "First, I'd like to introduce you all to Ryouga Hibiki."  Celeane gestured to the blonde young man beside her.  "In two days from now, we will be married and Ryouga will become my Royal Consort."
    Ukyou shot straight up, compromising the cover that the balcony provided.  "WHAT?!?" she shrieked.  She clambered onto the balcony railing, and leaped for a previously unnoticed rope that hung from the ceiling that supported the chandelier that was suspended over the main banquet table.  She swung the handle of her oversized spatula over the rope and used it to ride the rope's length down to the main floor.  Before she collided into the chandelier, she let go, somersaulted and landed on the banquet table, each foot planted on either side of the roast pig.
"THERE'S NO WAY IN HELL THAT YOU'RE GONNA MARRY MY RYO-CHAN!!!" she shouted to the shocked face of the island princess.
    Jiro looked down at what just transpired.  There was only one thing that she could think of that summarised the present situation.
    "Kuso..." she mumbled under her breath before she scrambled back into the hall.
 

    "Ukyou?" asked Ryouga in a very small disbelieving voice.  "Is that really you?"
    Ukyou turned away from the island princess and smiled at him.  "Who else could I be, you pig-headed fool?" she asked.  "I haven't changed.  You're the one who looks different."
    "Hehe..." Ryouga chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck, self-consciously.  He quickly revised his prievious belief about where the restaurant stood in Ukyou's priorities.
    Celeane, who was used to being the centre of attention, jumped up on the table to face the okonomiyaki chef.
    "How the hell did you get in here?!?" she demanded.
    "I flapped my arms and flew here, sugar," snorted Ukyou.  "I came here by boat, how else do you think?!?"
    "Are you mocking me?"
    "Hell no," mocked Ukyou.  "Why would I want to do something like that?"
    "Girls?" interjected Ryouga.
    "Not now, Ryo-chan," muttered his fiancee.  "Miss Uppity Princess and I are about to have a few words..."
    "Sorry, Ryouga-dear.  I have to teach this upstart of a commoner some manners."
    Ryouga tore his gaze away from the potential 'Cat Fight a la Royal' to the surrounding female guards.  He saw the small woman, Misha, at the head of them, still wearing her trench coat.
    "Um, girls?" Ryouga tried again.
    "NOT NOW!!!" shouted both women at once.
    Ryouga slumped back into his seat.  He really wanted to leave but didn't want to lose Ukyou and he really didn't want to get lost in the huge castle.  "I tried to stop them," he muttered to the General of the Guard.
    "Freeze!" shouted Misha.  Both Island princess and okonomiyaki chef froze before attacking each other.  They turned to face the diminutive woman.  Pleased to have got the ladies' attention, she gestured to the guards.  Two large women grabbed and yanked Ukyou off of the table.
    "Hey!" shouted Ryouga.
    "Whadda ya doin'?!?" shrieked Ukyou.
    "No one attacks the princess while I'm on duty," growled the small woman.  "What shall I do with her, your Highness?"
    Celeane stood shocked for a moment, and then she regained her composure.  She assumed a more regal stance, despite the fact that her foot was sitting in the punch bowl.  "Throw her in the dungeon!  After the wedding is completed, I'll decide what to do with her."
    "No!  Wait!" begged Ryouga.  "Can't we talk about this?"
    Celeane ignored him.
    "Do it!" she commanded her guards.
    "Yes, Your Highness," replied Misha as she commanded three of the women to take Ukyou away.  Ryouga tried to get up to help his fiancee, but strong hands from behind kept him in his chair.  A hand came in front of his face and flashed a knife before it.
    "You will stay where you are, pretty boy..." said a husky female voice.
    Ryouga swallowed, wondering if he could disarm the threatening woman before she can cut him.
    "Josi!  You will leave him be!" Celeane's voice snapped from above.  Ryouga looked up, and saw the island princess glare down over his head at the knife holder.  She was still standing on the table, but now, her foot was out of the punch bowl.  Ukyou was gone from the hall already.
    "But he might be a threat..."  The knife came closer to his nose.
    "Josi.  Now." Celeane's voice broke no argument.
    "Yes, your Highness," replied the low voice from behind him.  "It will be as you say."  The voice did not hold the proper tone of obedience, but the knife (and hand) disappeared from in front of Ryouga's face.
    "This dinner is officially over," commanded the princess.  "I will leave you to finish your eating," she said to the nobles (who thought at first the goings on were some sort of dinner entertainment, then decided that it was just as good as dinner entertainment).  "Let's go, Ryouga-dear."  She jumped off of the table, grabbed Ryouga by his arm and hauled him out of the dining room.  Misha followed them closely.

    Jiro watched as Celeane and her chief officer went down the hall with her brother.  She saw Ukyou being dragged out of the Banquet hall earlier and she had no doubts where Ukyou was headed.  It was Ryouga that she was concerned about at the moment.  She figured that if she acted like she was guarding the entry of the hall like she belonged there, nobody would really notice her.
    "You there!" commanded The diminutive Misha.
    So much for nobody noticing her.
    "Yes, ma'am?"  The best she could do to protect herself was to play the soldier girl role to the hilt.
    "Assist me in escorting the princess and her guest.  And it's 'General'.  Don't slip up again."
    "Yes, General.  Sorry, General."  Jiro fell in behind the small group.  It was apparent that Ryouga was too occupied to notice her voice and too distressed to register her chi-pattern, even at the close range.  Which really didn't matter, she figured.  The main thing was that she was there, in case the proverbial fertiliser should hit the proverbial fan.
    She watched as her brother dragged the princess to a halt, and started to demand answers from her.
    "Where is Ukyou?" he demanded.  "What have you done with her?"
    "She'll be safe in the dungeon, Ryouga-dear, no one will hurt her.  I promise.  She will even be released in a couple of days --after we're married, of course."
    Ryouga became like the cornerstone of a building.  He wouldn't budge.  "I keep telling you, I am engaged to Ukyou.  I can't marry you!"
    "We'll talk about it once we're out of the hallways."
    "..."  The young man refused to move, so Celeane was forced to drag him along with her.
 

    Ranma and Akane were in a long corridor when they heard the sounds of somebody coming.  Looking for a place to hide, they realised too late that there were no doors that they could have ducked into.  Instead, they decided to defend themselves if the need arise.
    A young man and a young girl came down the hallway, chuckling and commenting about something.  But they talked lowly and neither Ranma nor Akane could understand the words.  Both were carrying clean towels.
    The boy looked up and saw them.  The young married couple tensed but, instead of attacking, the young man called to them cheerfully.
    "Hi!  You two are the new servants?" he asked.
    "Servants?!" Ranma asked indignantly.  Akane stomped on his foot and Ranma shut his mouth before anything else could be said.
    "Yes, we are," said Akane sweetly, pulling off her best Kasumi act.  "We're not sure where we are, though.  Is the clean laundry supposed to go this way?"
    "Nope!  That way is the laundry room.  Actually you're supposed to be going the other way."
    "Oh my, really?"  Akane smiled.  "I'm so embarrassed."
    "Hey.  Doesn't those items belong to the princess' guest?" asked the young girl.
    The boy looked and nodded.  "I think you're right, Mishelle.  That is Ryouga's stuff."
    "We were told that we were supposed to place this in the guest's room," supplied Ranma.  "But I'm afraid that neither of us know where it is."
    "No problem," said the young man.  "I'll show you.  I've been assigned to tend to tend to her Highness' royal guest."
    "Thank-you," said Akane gratefully.
    "Yeah, thanks," Ranma said honestly.
    "I'm Mishon.  This is my younger sister, Mishelle."
    "Pleased to meet you both."
    "I'm Ranma, this is Akane," Ranma said without saying.
    "Those are not Fumeinian names," commented Mishelle.
    "Baka!" muttered Akane as she shoved an elbow into Ranma's gut.
    "They sound Japanese, actually," the young girl continued.
    "We're immigrants?" suggested Ranma hopefully.
    "Oh, I get it," Mishon. "You're here to rescue him.  Aren't you?"
    "Uh..."
    "I thought so."  Mishon shook his head, yet grinned.
    "Shouldn't try to stop them?" asked Mishelle to her older brother conversationally.
    "I don't know, the poor guy is upset," replied the older boy.  "He's being forced into a marriage that he really doesn't want, and I understand that his fiancee from Japan has just been thrown into the dungeon."
    "Ukyou is in the dungeon?" asked Akane.
    "Why is she there?" asked Ranma.
    "She interrupted the banquet that was being held in Ryouga's honour.  Apparently she insulted the Princess in the process," the boy said.
    "So will you help us get to Ryouga-kun?" asked Akane eagerly.
    "I can't do very much," said the girl, Mishelle.  "But I won't turn you in."
    Ranma and Akane blinked.  "Why are you helping us?" asked Ranma.
    "Won't you get in trouble with your princess?" asked Akane.
    "Yeah, but I'm a believer in true love," she said with a sigh.  "A girl comes to a foreign land to rescue her sweetheart.  Those make the best stories.  But I have to be careful or I WILL get in trouble with the Princess."
    "I can show you to the room he's staying in," said Mishon, "but not much more."
    "Thank-you," replied Akane.
    "Yeah, thanks guys."  Ranma would be relieved to return the backpack to its proper owner.

    Soon the royal entourage reached the door of the room that Ryouga was staying in.  Celeane commanded the cadet and her general to stand guard outside the door as she took her guest inside.  She shut the door behind them and turned to face the young man that she was determined to marry.
    "What is your problem?!?" she demanded.
    "What do you mean 'what is my problem'?" Ryouga asked Celeane coldly.  "You take me from my home, dress me in the most ridiculous outfits, you're trying to force me to marry you despite everything I say, and now you have just thrown my fiancee, the woman I love, into the dungeon and you ask me 'what is my problem'?  What do you think my problem is?!?"  He shouted the last accusation.
    "But she is just a peasant!  You can't mean to marry her!"
    The beautiful young man trembled in rage.  He yanked the gold circlet off of his head and threw it at the solid stone wall.  Instead of clanging off of the wall and falling onto the wall, it became imbedded.  The princess' eyes opened wide at the display of strength.  Ryouga turned back to her, his usually warm eyes were as dark and cold as stone, his face was red under the tan.
    "I.  Will.  Not.  Marry.  You."  The voice was flat and emotionless.
    "Why not?" she asked, refusing to lose the battle.

    Misha was standing guard outside the room with a new recruit that she didn't have the opportunity to make acquaintance with yet.  But she knew that duty was duty, and there will be time for introductions later-- when the girl was off duty.  She studied the young woman discretely, almost swearing that she looked familiar.  Then there was the umbrella that was strapped to the recruit's back.  Misha was certain that the huge blue umbrella was regulation issue...  Heck, umbrellas were never a part of the uniform.  The small woman figured that the poor girl was performing some sort of initiation ritual that her unit put her up to.  Why else would anyone be wearing an umbrella?
    The girl appeared to be oblivious to the subtle scrutiny and seemed to be concentrating on listening for something.  The small general thought momentarily about reprimanding her, but thought against it.  After all, the new recruit was probably trained to listen for any kind of threat that could be present, either in the hallway where she was standing or in the room behind her that she was guarding.
    But the girl seemed to be taking the listening a little too seriously. The wall behind them was solid stone and the door was solid oak.  Misha figured that a person would have to have incredibly sensitive hearing to make out any sound at all.  She wondered if the girl heard something that she couldn't, and if so, if it was cause for alarm.  She tried to listen for whatever it was that the girl was listening for.
    Then she heard the new recruit murmur something.
    "Calm down, Oniichan.  You won't solve anything that way."
    Misha's head snapped around to look at the girl on the opposite side of the door.  "Is there a problem, recruit?" she asked.
    "No!  No, General," the girl stammered.  "I all of a sudden thought of a friend that I knew.  It won't happen again."
    The small woman grunted.  "See that it don't."

    "Why not?" asked Celeane, refusing to lose the battle.
    "You donít get it, do you?" Ryouga asked in an exasperated voice.  "I don't love you.  I don't even respect you.  You treat people as playthings.  And you always want your way.  Life doesn't work that way.  Don't you understand that?!?"
    "I am the Princess of Fumei.  My word is law, the people know that!"  Celeane was confused.  This young man was challenging the way things were.  He just wouldn't go along with what she wanted, the way everyone else did.  She found the situation frustrating.
    Apparently so did Ryouga.  He clenched his fist, and he looked like he was about to hit her.  But he stopped and cocked his head to the side as if he heard something.  He lowered his hand and gave her a cold smile.
    "Your people may listen to you and do what you say out of fear," he said, "but they don't respect you.  Some ruler you'll make.  You're too damn self absorbed."  He snorted.  "I bet you're not even aware of anything that happens in your own kingdom."
    "How dare you?!?" she shouted.  "You don't even know how things work!  You don't have the right to make accusations!"  She turned around and marched to the door.  "I'll give you one day to change your mind, she called back into the room.  Good night!"  She slammed the door.  She gestured to the recruit still standing at the door.  "Stay here and guard this door," she commanded.
    "Yes, your Highness," replied the tall girl.
    "Misha!  Come with me."
    "Yes, Princess."
    Not looking to see if the recruit did or did not do as she asked, Celeane stomped off.

    Ranma and Akane, with the help of the two siblings, were on their way to the guest wing of the palace.  Ranma was still struggling with the heavy backpack, but he was keeping his mouth shut.
    "Where is P-chan's room, anyway?" he asked.
    "Who's P-chan?" asked Mishon.  "I thought you were going after Ryouga."
    "Ignore the baka," commented Akane.  "It's what he calls Ryouga-kun."
    "It's what you called him too, for two years, Akane."  Ranma received an Akane-special to the skull, courtesy of Akane's inter-dimensional mallet.
    "Donít even start there, Ranma."  Akane returned her mallet to its inter-dimensional pocket.
    There was a sound of footsteps coming from the direction that they were heading.
    "Someone's coming," said Mishelle.
    They took refuge behind a large column and waited.  Ranma took a peek around the column and saw the small woman in the trench coat walking with a young girl with long black hair.
    "I don't care if she a girl," growled Ranma.  "I want to get even with her for humiliating me like that."
    "You can't," hissed Mishon.  "You hit the Princess, Misha will kill you!"
    "The princess is the one in the coat?" asked Akane.
    "No," said Mishelle.  "The princess is the girl with the long black hair."
    "The girl in the trench-coat is our big sister, Misha," whispered Mishon.  "She's in command of the guards, and she's real protective of the Princess."
    "Well, I have a score to settle with your big sister," Ranma muttered.
    "Shhh!" hissed the others.
    They watch the two young women until they disappeared into another hall.
    "They must've left Ryouga in his room," suggested Mishon.  "Let's get going."

    Ryouga waited until he was certain that Celeane and her hench-woman were gone.  Then he walked over and opened the door.  Jiro grinned at him from the other side of the doorway.
    "Hey, Jiro," he greeted.  "You came too?"
    "Yep."  His younger sister grinned back at him.  "How's it going Oniichan?"  She came into the room, shut the door and took off her helmut.
    "I want to get out of here so badly, it hurts."  Ryouga sighed.
    "And you have only been here for just a day?  And you're sick of the place already?"  Jiro teased him.  "You had time to work on your tan, it seems."
    "Well, the service is lousy, and the island appears to be run by a crazy-woman."
    "I think I have noticed."  Jiro walked up to Ryouga and gave him a hug.  "I'm glad to see that you're okay.  You really did get a nice tan, I don't see any tan lines or nothing."
    "Yeah, thanks.  Just don't asked how I came by it."
    The two separated and Jiro's voice went serious.   "Ukyou was so worried."
    "Yeah and she got thrown into the dungeon too." Ryouga sighed.
    "Do you think she's in danger?"
    Ryouga shook his head.  "No, not immediately.   She's safe there for another day or so."
    "Okay.  How are you doing, then?"
    "I am so hungry.  I was about to eat at the banquet, but Ukyou showed up, and Celeane had her arrested and dragged me out of there."
    "Oh, yeah."
    The two stared at each other.
    "Are you here to rescue me?"
    "Sorta."
    "I did have a plan of escape in progress, you know."
    Jiro was struggling to keep from raising her eyebrow.  "You did?" she asked.
    "There's a hole in the garden wall, that I've been enlarging.  It's almost big enough for P-chan to squeeze through."
    "Really?" asked Jiro.  "And how did you plan on finding this hole again, Oniichan?"
    Ryouga's face fell.  "Not much of a plan then, was it?" he asked.
    "It would've been a great plan, if you had a sense of direction, that is."
    "Thanks..." Ryouga growled.
     "And besides, did you look outside?"  The tall blonde girl pointed out of the window.
    Ryouga looked out.  The garden was filled with female guards.  He was certain that there were more out there than there were earlier.
    "Why do you think there are more guards out there?" he asked.
    "Probably because everyone knows that there are intruders here to rescue you.  So they had to increase the security."
    "Oh..."

    Celeane was growling as she stomped off to her rooms.  Misha was tailing behind.
    "Princess?" asked the head of the palace security.
    "What is it, Misha?" asked the island princess.
    "Wouldn't it be easier for you to let this Ryouga go and find yourself another young man?"
    "Why do you think that?" asked Celeane.
    "He's seems to be more trouble than he's worth.  Already the girl from the restaurant showed up to claim him.  Who else is here, that we don't know about."
    "I think you worry too much, Misha.  I trust that you'll find the rest of the intruders --if there are more people to be found.  As for Ryouga-dear, I'm certain that I can bring him around to my way of thinking."
    "If you're certain, princess..."  Misha seemed uncertain, herself.  "If you'll excuse me, I'll go arrange teams to go search for the others."
    "As you will," dismissed the princess casually.  "And thanks for being concerned, Misha.  I may not say it often enough, but I do appreciate all that you do around here."
    "Thank-you, your Highness."  Misha turned and walked off.
    Celeane watched as her confidant went off then returned to her grousing.  That man has no idea how things work around here, she grumbled.  If he won't change his mind for me, I'm sure that his little spatula-girl can help me change it for him.  Then she sighed.  But that won't work, really.  I'd rather that he loved me than hate me.
    She opened the door was surprised to see that Josi, one of the captains in charge of the recruits, was sitting on her bed.  There were other captains standing around the room.  All of the captains all looked as if they were expecting her.
    "Josi!  What is the meaning of this?!?" demanded the princess.
    The big woman gave a lazy smile.  "Are you sure that you don't know?" she asked in a mocking tone.  "We're here to oust you, your highness.  We're gonna be running things from now on."
    Celeane looked to her other retainers.  "Arrest her!" she commanded of them.
    The women did nothing.  Well, not quite.  Some of the women crossed their arms in defiance and one woman actually laughed out loud.  Celeane was starting to become frightened as she realised that she was alone.
    "You see, you Highness," said Josi conversationally, "You're not in charge anymore."

    Ranma, Akane, Mishon and Mishelle had just made it to the guestroom that Ryouga was staying in.  Ranma was just about to open the door when Mishon grabbed his arm.
    "Wait!  There's no guard out here.  That must mean that the guard is in the bedroom."
Ranma cracked his knuckles.  "Just leave him to me..." he started.
    "No, Ranma, wait."  Akane tugged on his arm.  "The guard is probably a woman or girl like Urma.  Let me handle her."
    Ranma nodded, and bowed to her as she took the lead.  Akane put her hand onto the doorknob and was about to turn it.  Ranma stopped her before she did.
    "Here Akane, use this."  He pressed a heavy object into her hand.  She looked down and saw that she was holding Ryouga's umbrella.
    "Thank-you," she said gratefully to her husband.  Then she opened the door.
    Akane dashed into the room.  She brought the heavy bamboo umbrella high over her head and brought it down onto the head of the female guard.
    But the umbrella never connected.
    It was blocked by another umbrella.  A blue western-styled one.
    "Akane-san!" called out Jiro.  "Wait!  It's me!"
    Akane blinked, and blushed.  She was grateful that Jiro had excellent reflexes.  A slower girl would've been unconscious.
    "Sorry, Jiro-chan," she said.
    "S'okay."
    "Akane-san?"
    Akane looked up.  It took her a moment to recognise the blonde young man that was in the same room as her as Ryouga.
    "Ryouga-kun?" she asked in amazement.
    Ranma came in after her.  "Yo! Ryouga!  Is that you?"
    "Yeah," Ryouga chuckled.  "It's me."  He rubbed awkwardly at the back of his head.  "I guess I look kind of silly, donít I?"
    "As compared to what?" asked Ranma.  "You don't look any sillier than you usually do, P-chan!  But that is one wild outfit."
    "Shut-up, Ranma!!!!"  Both Akane and Ryouga aimed a punch to Ranma's head.  They both connected, but Ranma remained standing.
    "Jeez!  You're touchy!" he accused Ryouga.
    Ryouga growled.  "Believe me, this is nothing compared to the get-up that I was wearing earlier..."
    Ranma blinked at the venom in the Lost Boy's voice.
    There were some murmurs from outside the room.
    "Is it safe to come in?" asked Mishon from outside in the hall.
    "Yeah," replied Ranma.  "Come in!"  Mishon and Mishelle both snuck into the room and shut the door.  The boy looked to Ryouga and grinned.
    "I found your friends for you," he said proudly.
    "Thanks," said Ryouga gratefully.
    "Have we got everybody?" asked Akane.
    "Yeah, I think so," said Ranma.  "And..." he turned to Ryouga and handed over the heavy backpack.  "This is yours, I assume?"
    "Great!" cheered Ryouga.  "My clothes!  Thanks, Ranma!"
    "Uh," Ranma was taken by surprise by the thanks, but he recovered real fast.  "No problem, man."
    "I guess that we should get out of here then," suggested Jiro, "We still have to rescue Ukyou."
    "Lemme change first," suggested Ryouga.  "There's no way in hell that I'm going out there in this ridiculous outfit."
    Jiro grabbed her brother's arm and pulled him into the room with the tub.  "Change in here, Oniichan.  We'll be waiting for you.  Call when you're done."
    "Right..."  Ryouga waited for his sister to leave the room, then started to dig around in his backpack for his more familiar and comfortable clothes.

    Ranma was waiting with the women when he just recalled something.  He walked around to the room with the bath, where he found Ryouga, dressed in only his green leggings.  The lost boy was just starting to pull his sleeveless shirt over his head.
    "Hey, Ryouga?  Can I ask you something?"
    "Hmmm?" came Ryouga's muffled voice from inside the shirt.  His head came out and he starting struggling to find the right places to put his arms through.  "What did you want?" he asked.
    "It's about that ring you gave Ucchan..."  Ranma paused, wondering how he was going to phrase his question correctly.  Then he shrugged and plunged onward.  "Where did you buy it?"
    Ryouga blinked as he managed to get his arm through his shirt.  "Why do you want to know?"
    "Well...  I feel kinda guilty --never gotten Akane an engagement ring and all...  I want to give her the ring that she deserves."
    "That's a good idea.  Akane-san definitely deserves it."  Ryouga got his other arm through and he reached into his pack for a yellow cord.  He bent down and started to wrap the cord around his shin.
    "So...  Where did you get the ring for Ucchan?" asked Ranma.  "How much did it cost?"
    "I didn't buy the ring," Ryouga stated simply as he tied the cord and reached for another.
    "You couldn't have stole it," said Ranma flatly.  "You're an honourable guy."
    Ryouga paused in the middle of wrapping the cord.  "Give it up, Ranma.  You'll never find another ring like it."
    "Oh, really, P-chan?  Care to tell me why?"
    "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
    "Try me."
    Ryouga shrugged and finish tying up the other cord.  "I made it," he said.
    Ranma was sceptical.  "You made it.  Right."  He crossed his arms and glared at his friend/rival.  "Why do I have trouble believing that?"
    "Told you," muttered Ryouga as he tried to secure his mass of blonde curls into a ponytail.
    "Huh?"
    "I said that you wouldn't believe me.  I've gotten better with rocks.  I don't just know the Bakusai Tenketsu anymore.  A diamond is nothing more than a very hard rock."  Ryouga tied his bandanna around his head.
    "Whatever you say, man."  Ranma didn't want to ask anymore questions on the subject.  They gave him headaches.
    "Let's go get Ukyou," Ryouga suggested.
    "Wait," Ranma said.
    "What now?!?"
    "Um.  First off, I want you to understand that this is NOT my idea."
    "What isn't?"
    "It was the only way we could get Nabiki to agree to lend us a boat..."  Ranma pulled out a small notepad and pencil.  Ryouga was confused.
    "Huh?" he asked eloquently.  "What are you talking about?"
    "Sorry, man...  Uh, have you any problems with split ends yet?"
    "What?!?"
    "What about this...  Does you hair always curl like that?"
    "Uh..."  Ryouga was at a loss.  "My hair does tend to curl in heavy humidity, but not this quickly and not this much."
    Ranma jotted the response down.
    "Did you use anything that can affect your hair?" he asked.
    "I washed it earlier with normal shampoo.  Or at least I think it was normal shampoo...  Why are you asking me these things? "
    "Nabiki wanted me and Jiro to do the follow-ups.  She wanted to know how the stuff that they put in your hair would react to adverse conditions."
    "You're kidding me..."
    "Nope."
    Ryouga sighed.  "Alright, let's get this over with.

    Jiro and Akane were talking with the two siblings.
    "So you say that the princess rules by whim?" asked Akane.
    "Yeah," sighed Mishelle.  "Anything she wants, she tends to get."
    "That's gotta be hard on everybody else," commented Jiro.
    "It can be," replied Mishon.  "But not as bad as you think.  She doesn't do a lot of really stupid stuff, like forbidding people to eat or to ban owning pets and stuff.  But there are some foolish things that she does that no one can question.  Like the kid napping of Ryouga.  She expected him to just go through with the marriage without question like everyone else around here."
    "But it didn't work that way," commented the younger sibling.  "He refused her every time.  Princess Celeane was so frustrated."
    "But so was Ryouga," chuckled Mishon.  "He really hated the outfit that the princess had him wear when he first got here."
    "The one he was just wearing was rather nice though," commented Akane.
    "Yeah, but the one he was wearing earlier..."  Mishon shook his head.  "Heck, if it was me who had to wear that thing, I'd have died from embarrassment."
    "Oh?" asked Jiro.  "What kind of outfit was it?"
    "There's one laid out on the bed," commented Mishelle.
    Jiro went over to take a look.  "Oh my..." she giggled as she picked up the article of clothing.  "Yeah, I can see why Oniichan would be unhappy in that."
    Akane went to take a look. She saw the loincloth and belt that Ryouga's little sister was holding.  She gasped.  "Poor Ryouga-kun..."
    "So that's how he got his tan..." mused the tall girl.
    "Speaking of clothes, how long does it take that guy to change anyway?"
    "Oh!"  Jiro turned to face the boy.  "He's done changing.  It's just that Ranma-san is busy asking him questions."
    "Really?" asked Akane.  "What kind of questions?"
    Jiro put her hand to her head, fingering her blonde hair.
    "Oh.  Those questions," Akane sighed.  "I sometimes wish that Oneechan could be a little more generous."
    "Huh?  What?" asked Mishon.
    "It's about the stuff that's been used to turn Oniichan's hair blonde."
    "You mean that it isn't natural?!?" asked Mishelle in surprise.
    Both Akane and Jiro shook their heads.
    "Boy!" laughed the cleaning boy.  "That would have been quite a surprise for the Princess, if she knew..."
    "Wouldn't it, though..." chuckled Ryouga as he came out of the washroom with Ranma.  He saw what Jiro was still holding up and he blushed.  "Get rid of that thing!" he yelped at his sister.
    Jiro blinked and grinned at her brother.  "I bet it looked so cute on you, Oniichan."
    Ryouga turned his back.  "Just get rid of it," he said.
    "Okay."
    "Are we on our way yet?" asked Ranma.
    "Yes," Akane nodded.  "Mishon-kun and Mishelle-chan have agreed to take us to the dungeons.
    "We can free Ukyou," Ryouga said hopefully.  "And maybe get something to eat afterwards."
    All of the present visitors to the island nodded, as they didn't have anything to eat since they arrived.  Then they all went out the door.  Jiro went out last, after stuffing her brother's skimpy outfit inside of her borrowed uniform.

    Ukyou was pacing around in a cell in the dungeon.  She was mad.  All of her spatulas have all been taken from her and she was unarmed.  She was thinking black thoughts at the island princess.
    She tried to recall the events that had landed her in the dungeon.

    She was in the balcony, looking for her fiancé.  She had trouble finding him and when she did, she almost didn't recognise him. He didn't look like the young man that she fell in love with a year before and he didn't even look like the young man that was taken from her restaurant a couple of days before.  His skin had been tanned golden and his blonde hair was curly.  He was wearing clothes that flattered his muscular figure.
    Bishounen, Ukyou had thought.  A beautiful young man.  And for a moment, Ukyou thought he was too beautiful to be with the likes of her.  Then she saw how miserable he looked.
    "What did that bitch do to him?!?" she remembered asking Jiro.
    He looked like a doll.  He was dressed to match the other nobles that were seated in the hall, but the gold circlet with the emerald was too much.  It made him look like a valuable object instead of a person.
    Then Celeane got up to make her announcement.  That was when Ukyou snapped.  She had quickly remembered the last year and the work that two of them put in together to make sure that the relationship would work.  She remembered the day that Ryouga, dark-haired, blushing and down on one  knee, handed her a most exquisite ring.  His eyes were asking the one question that his mouth could not.  She remembered his look when she said yes to his unvoiced question.  The memory of how his whole face lit up with a warm glow was one that Ukyou vowed that she would keep for the rest of her life.
    And this little girl wanted to take that away?!?
    That was when she threw caution to the wind and made her unorthodox entrance.
    She can sort of remembered Jiro's surprised gasp, but ignored it as all of her concentration was focused on getting to the floor below.
    She recalled how Ryouga looked at her as she landed on the banquet table.  He was confused, and surprised to see her.  And she recalled the hope and wonder that shone in his eyes when she appeared.  And his joy at seeing her.  It was obvious that this particular bishounen was happy to see her.
    And Celeane was not.
    The snot-nosed princess had jumped on the table to face her down.  And all Ukyou wanted to do was to teach the girl a lesson for separating her and Ryouga the way that she did.
    Then the guardswomen came and grabbed her to take her away.  Ryouga would have helped her, but he was held back by a huge woman with red hair, holding a knife in front of his face.  The last thing she saw before she was dragged out of the room was Ryouga's worry for her and Celeane's contempt.

    Ukyou snapped back to the present, and shook her head.   She was embarrassed as well as angry.
    She was furious at Celeane for taking her fiancé away from her and for throwing her in this cell.  And she was embarrassed with herself for allowing her temper get the better of her like it did.  If she had simply waited, she could have got Ryouga from his room after he returned there for the night, and all of them could have escaped, without the Princess being wise until it was too late.
    But her rashness has cost her her freedom.  Instead of being the rescuer, she'll have to be rescued.  How can things get any worse? she asked herself.
    "Heads up!  You got company."  A harsh female voice called to her as if in answer.  Ukyou looked to the small window of the steel door and saw the face of the red-haired woman that prevented Ryouga from helping her earlier.  The guard gave the okonomiyaki chef a cruel smile.  A key clattered in the lock and the cell door opened.  A small figure was shoved into the cell, and it collapsed on the floor.  Ukyou watched as the door was shut and locked.  She listened as the guardswoman walked off and upstairs out of the dungeon.  Then she turned to look at the figure that was groaning on the floor, and gasped.
    It was Celeane.
 
 
 

Chapter Five

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