NOTES: This was written for a multi-author collaboration known as The Ranma Preludes. It also serves as a HaM side story and introduces plot elements that will be important in the main story.

Dialog in this story should be understood as translated from the Chinese. For names or untranslated words, I use the Mandarin dialect and the Pinyin system of romanization. The word "Xiao," means "young" or "little." "Xiao " (e.g. "Xiao Shan" for Shan Pu) is a common informal way for peers to refer to each other, and is used in this story.

I sat in the small wooden chair and waited. The council of elders would be finished with their deliberations soon. There was nothing more for me to do until they came out to tell me what my fate was to be. Though I tried not to, I couldn't help feeling fear. It wasn't just that the elders had the power to sentence me to death if they wished. What was more frightening was that my friends, even my family, would stand aside and allow my execution — perhaps even help carry it out — if the elders told them to.

My husband was seated next to me. The normally bubbly man stared off blankly into space. "What will you do when my punishment is announced?" I asked him.

"It'll be all right." He looked back at me. "Don't worry."

"Oh? The council might order my death, or might have me sent to Zhouquanshan." The so-called cursed spring mountain was the greatest fear of most of the Amazons. Not that they had any more idea of what was at the place than I did; they believed that it was horrible only because the elders had told them so. "If that happened, would you simply stand by and let them take me? Or would you fight to defend your wife?"

"Everything will be all right." He smiled feebly, then quickly returned to staring straight ahead. Not surprising, really; dealing with conflict was not one of my husband's skills. It was a bad habit of mine -- asking people questions that I knew they couldn't answer.

I looked out to the chamber, at the assemblage of those who I had called sisters, many of whom had been my friends. Some of them turned their eyes downward so they wouldn't have to meet my gaze. Others stared back at me, their expressions mixtures of sympathy and disapproval. They didn't want anything bad to happen to me, but the law said that they had to accept the elders' judgement. One couldn't question the law, could one?

My daughter, Shan Pu, sat in the first row. Her eyes gazed directly at me with fire in them. Her mouth curved upward in a half-smile. "You broke the law, Mother. If you are punished, it is the fault of no one other that yourself."

"And if my punishment is decreed to be an arrow through the heart, will you then miss me?"

"No, Mother." She stared coldly into my eyes for a moment before turning away. "My aim will be quite accurate."

My daughter hated me. Not surprising, really; I had tried to keep her from what she wanted most. But it was interesting that she had avoided answering me. If they did order me put to death, would she regret it afterwards? Would she cry over the loss of her mother?

I wanted to think so. I liked to think that her heart was as torn as mine. But in truth, I didn't really know.


There's one question I've never figured out the answer to. What was it that made me see things differently than the other Amazons? Was it inevitable destiny, encoded into a genetic predisposition? Or was it something that I'd experienced?

Perhaps Mother's death was the turning point. To this day, I can't describe how painful it still is to think that I'll never see her smile again. I believed that Amazon "medicines" would be able to cure her pneumonia. I was proven wrong.

Or maybe it was Teacher Lan's influence. Lan Zhilei was a thin woman of medium height, with short, slightly curled hair that had begun to gray as I approached adulthood. Wrinkles framed her kindly smile, and protruded out of the corners of her eyes like the tail of a fish. Reportedly, she had once been a warrior, but had given it up to teach full-time due to ill health.

Lan taught differently than the other teachers, who would simply impart their knowledge and expect us to accept it. Lan asked questions of us, challenging us to figure things out for ourselves. Instead of merely telling us the best ways to construct weapons, she let us experiment to test which designs worked best.

It seemed to surprise her when my faith in our ways began to waver. Teacher Lan truly believed in the traditions of the Amazons, truly thought that they could withstand any degree of examination. But by my late teens I was the one to ask her questions, and it became clear that she didn't have the kind of answers that I was looking for.

I remember pointing out the classroom window at the rice fields one day. Women and men in wide pointed hats moved about, chatting with each other as they harvested the grain. It was the same scene I had always seen at this time of year.

"Something interesting?" Lan asked.

"No, teacher. I was only wondering why they do what they do."

"Well, if they didn't, what would we eat?" The teacher gave a friendly chuckle, knowing full well that she had misinterpreted my question.

I smiled. "No, no, I don't mean that. You taught me that there are machines that can harvest much more food than people alone can. So why do we still farm the same way we did since..." I searched for a sufficiently long indicator of time. "... since before Grandmother was born?"

"For several reasons. Firstly, the kind of equipment you're talking about costs money that we don't have. Secondly, our people, or at least most of us, actually enjoy doing the work manually. It gives us a feeling of accomplishment and makes us feel more in tune the land that is our home. Lastly, we Amazons are a people rooted in our traditions. The fact that we've always farmed in this way is reason enough for us to keep doing it."

"Yes, teacher." Being given the tradition excuse always made me feel that I'd won the argument. We do it this way because... we do it this way. In this case, I had to admit that Lan's other reasons were good ones. More usually, the elders would have to resort to an appeal to tradition as the only answer to my questions.

Of course, I had to be careful not to push them too far. The elders were, as a group, not terribly tolerant of things that they didn't want to hear. But I had a pretty good idea of how far I could go with each of them. Lan was the most lenient, and also the easiest to gauge; as soon as she began telling me things instead of asking me questions, I knew it was time to stop. Grandmother was much less open-minded and more inscrutable. Still, she had to put up with a certain amount due to our blood relation.

Academic work wasn't the only thing I excelled at in my youth. I was one of the best hand-to-hand fighters of my age group, becoming a full-fledged Amazon Warrior at the unusually young age of fourteen. The Warriors are an eilte that only some of our tribeswomen manage to earn membership in; those who don't become artisans, teachers, weaponsmiths, and so on. To have a daughter initiated as a Warrior is considered a source of great pride by mothers. By most mothers, that is.

Selected for my combat skill, I was invited to undergo the secret initiation ritual. I was placed inside a box, a glass cube about a meter long, edged with metallic framework. I sat inside the cramped space, cross-legged and unclothed, my feet and back pressing tightly against the box, as the elders explained to me what I had to do in order to pass the test. Just remain in the box, they said. That was all that was required. But if I were to break the glass and escape before they let me out, that would mean failure.

Then a vat was wheeled over. The elders began filling up buckets of water from the vat and emptying them onto my head. The box I was sitting in began to fill. The water level climbed past my waist to my chest, to my neck. I drew in as much air as I could, then held it in tightly. An instant later, I was completely covered.

Long seconds passed by as I stared out through the glass at the distorted image of the elders. They did nothing but watch impassively. I struggled to keep my mouth and nose shut as my lungs desperately cried out for air. Why were the elders still not reacting? Surely I'd proven my endurance already. Most people wouldn't have been able to hold out this long. Were they just going to let me die? And even if they intended to pull me out at the last moment, what if they misjudged the timing and left me in a second too long?

I tried to stand up, to smash my way out of the glass box. But I couldn't find my muscles as the world around me began to dissolve into a dreamy mist.

The next thing I remember, I was lying on the floor, coughing and spitting out water, breathing in mouthful after mouthful of life-giving air. The water from the box I had been in was being carefully poured back into the vat that it had come from. Grandmother and the other elders still stood there, watching the scene stoically. They didn't seem particularly concerned that I had come within a hair's breadth of dying.

I tried to find my voice. "Grandmother...." I coughed some more.

"You are now an Amazon warrior, child," Grandmother said. "You carry the honor and responsibility of thousands of years of Amazon history. Now that you have passed the initiation ritual, you will speak of it to no one."

I swallowed the water in my throat. "May I now know the purpose of the test?"

Grandmother remained silent for a few moments, then spoke. "Certain circumstances may or may not occur in your future. If they do, having undergone the ritual will prove vitally important for you. It is not something you need be concerned with at this time."

To call that answer unsatisfying would've been a huge understatement. "What circumstances? Important in what way?" I had very nearly lost my life, and I wasn't even allowed to know why? Anger took over, and my words flowed freer than was probably wise. "How could you be certain that I wouldn't drown and be killed?"

"You will speak of the ritual to no one," Grandmother said stonily. "Myself included."

Years later, with some of my friends who had also become warriors, I broke that rule. We talked about the ritual and what the reason for it might be. To them, it was obvious. A warrior needed to be able to depend on her fellow warriors. She needed to know that those who fought by her side would remain by her side, even unto death if necessary. The ritual, then, was a test of perseverance.

I didn't say so, but I found that answer difficult to accept. Later, thinking to myself about it, I came up with a more insidious explanation. The initiation was a way of insuring that we wouldn't question Amazon rules and beliefs. For to do so would be to admit that we had been fools enough to willingly risk our lives in the ritual for no real reason. The elders, even Grandmother, probably didn't understand that. They were probably fooled along with everyone else.

Whatever the real reason, by the time I was seventeen, I had decided that Amazon culture didn't have the answers that I needed. There had to be something better out there. The only question was how I could get to it.


I came into the classroom, expecting Teacher Lan to be there. She was, but not by herself. "Grandmother?"

"Hello, Lashi." At first glance, Grandmother Ke appeared to be hundreds of years old. Her shriveled face, her white, cobwebby hair, and her emaciated frame made her look quite repulsive. Her movements, however, were spry and swift enough to make any young person envious. I knew her actual age to be ninety. Even so, she was still the best fighter the Amazon tribe had, and didn't show any signs that age was slowing her down.

"I invited Elder Ke here to discuss your progress," Lan said to me. I felt a touch of apprehension about this. She had never expressed any dissatisfaction with my work. Had I finally gone too far, asked the wrong questions?

"I understood that she was doing quite well," Grandmother said. "She placed quite highly in the tournament for sixteen-year olds last month. Her use of paralysis pressure-points was quite effective."

Lan shook her head. "Not her combat progress. I'm talking about the academic work she's been doing here with me."

The old woman cast a critical gaze at me. "Is there a problem? Is her performance inadequate?"

"Yes," Lan answered. "And no. Lashi is much more than adequate. She's actually one of the best students I've ever taught."

Grandmother stared at the teacher curiously. "And the problem?"

"The problem is that soon she'll have mastered everything that I'm able to offer her. She deserves a chance to study further — and as she clearly has no interest in mysticism or any of our other more... esoteric disciplines, I don't believe any of us here would be able to instruct her."

The old woman's eyes narrowed. "What, then, do you suggest?"

"I'd like to arrange for her to go to a university. There's a whole wealth of things she could learn there; and afterwards, she would be able to pass on the knowledge here."

"Yes!" I nearly jumped out of her seat before noticing Grandmother's disapproving glare. I took a moment to collect herself, then spoke calmly. "I wish to undertake this activity, Grandmother. It will be beneficial to both myself and our tribe."

Grandmother remained silently pensive for several moments. Then she looked up at me. "I'm... afraid not, Granddaughter."

"Why not?!" I felt like one who'd been offered a fortune in gold — then had it taken away.

"You are my granddaughter and an Amazon. As your elder, I have a responsibility to do what is best for our tribe. There is much ugliness in the world outside our village. The brand of warfare practiced there is devoid of honorable combat; it is merely mass destruction. Even when not at war, they treat each other as if they were disposable. It is my belief that exposing our sisters to the outside's corrupting influence could only result in ill effects."

I stared at Lan. She had to be able to say something, anything, to convince the stubborn old woman.

"I'm sorry," the teacher said. "The elder has made her decision. We must accept the wisdom of it."

"Wisdom? Wisdom?!" I shouted. "Clinging to antiquated—" I forced my mouth shut. I was angry enough to tell Grandmother in no uncertain terms what I thought of her Amazon traditions. But though the old crone was wrong, she still had a hundred different ways by which she could make a young scholar regret a careless outburst.

I stormed out of the room before I had a chance to say something I'd later regret. My feet thumped loudly on the floor as I walked out of the building. This wasn't over. Somehow, I would persuade Grandmother to let me leave. I had no intention of spending the rest of my life in one desolate little corner of the world, knowing and experiencing only what they allowed me to.

The schoolhouse was set on top of a small hill, and as I walked out I could look over the village. To me it seemed like a painting. An image whose borders no one inside can escape from; a scene that never changed until the colors slowly faded away from the effects of time. How depressing.

Abruptly, I noticed someone I hadn't seen before. A young man dressed in black had walked into the village. A new brush stroke in the picture? Curious, I went to investigate.


"Greetings, traveler," I said. "I am Ke Lashi of the Amazons. I welcome you to our village."

"Greetings to you!" Small-lensed sunglasses shielded the man's eyes. A sharply-pointed goatee and a whisker-like moustache adorned his face, his only visible hair. He wore a simple black coat and pants, and a tight-fitting cap. "I am Shan Peine, travelling scholar and martial artist. It is a pleasure to make so many new friends! I've traveled here from Chengdu hoping to learn some of the customs of your people."

"I see." It was too perfect. "A martial artist? Are you curious about Amazon fighting techniques?"

"Why, yes! Actually, I'm not much more than a dabbler when it comes to fighting." His absurdly loud laugh rang through the air. "I'm quite fascinated by everything about the Amazons. Life here seems so... uncomplicated. Quite unlike the city I come from."

I felt quite guilty about what I was about to do. The man obviously had no idea of what he was getting into. But Grandmother hadn't left me any choice, had she? "Then why not join me for a little practice combat? The best way to learn is through hands-on experience."

"Er... I don't know...." He began to pull back a bit. "To tell you the truth, I'm not very good."

"Oh, don't worry." I smiled reassuringly. "I'll go easy on you."


Not long after, a crowd of Amazons stood around the tournament log, watching me face off against the newcomer. Eyes looked up and the hubbub of conversation dropped to a low murmur as he and I approached one another.

Peine looked at the crowd, then back at me. "Should we start?"

"Whenever you're ready." I braced myself, waiting for him to come to me. He inched ahead along the log, looking down every so often to make sure of his footing. When he was close enough, I let out a spirited yell, and swung forward with my fist. Peine desperately moved an arm up to block, and countered with a kick, which I avoided as I repeated my attack.

At the back of the crowd, Lan watched, with Grandmother perched atop her staff next to her. They probably wondered why I fought the way I did. I had never been noted for raw power and endurance. When I won a fight, it was usually by analyzing the weaknesses in my opponent's defenses and adapting my moves accordingly. Peine's techniques were fairly sloppy, and left a multitude of openings. But still I used nothing other than the most obvious direct forward attacks. Even an illiterate would have been able to read my moves.

I had my own reasons for fighting this way, of course. It would be very dishonorable for an Amazon to deliberately let someone beat her in a fight, and Grandmother might have been able to punish me if I had done that. On the other hand, there was nothing in the law that specified what sort of fighting styles I could and couldn't use.

Peine's arm swung up to block my next attack. Good, I thought; he was finally catching on to my tactic. The force of his block seemed to lessen with each attack. I remembered what Grandmother had said about outsider men being physically weak, at least compared to Amazon women.

Shan Peine lashed out with a kick; it connected with my stomach, sending me flying off the log and down to the ground. The boy looked around, astonished. "I— I won?"

I picked myself up, trying not to look too pleased. I walked over to meet Peine as he jumped down from the log. "I congratulate you on your victory. Now, are you still interested in learning of Amazon culture?"

"Yes, very much so!"

He still had no clue. "Good. Because there is a particular Amazon law I wish to demonstrate." Grabbing his face with my hand, I drew him toward me and kissed him.


"By my authority as Chief Elder of the tribe, I pronounce you woman and husband."

"Friends!" Shan Peine raised his glass high. "To join with the Amazons is an honor. I salute you!" A few people in the crowd clapped. The others nodded and smiled.

I waved quietly as I drank from the sparkling white wine Peine had brought. I certainly hadn't expected this to happen. Who would've thought that he would welcome the idea of a forced marriage instead of running from it? What kind of person was he? A weakling, unable to choose his own destiny?

Still, it wasn't bad at all. Being from outside, he was a better catch than anyone else I was likely to meet, and sooner or later Grandmother would have to let us at least visit the place where he had lived. In the meantime, he was sure to know a lot about the outside, and I would have lots of time to pump him for information.


Shan Peine and I spent some time getting used to the pleasures of married life. I discovered just how stimulating the touch of a man could be. My husband was a good lover, though in truth I had no other experience to compare him to.

After sex, we would lie back on the mat, and talk.

"Do you come from a large family?" I asked.

"Not large by Chinese standards. I have three brothers, all older. Two of them are doctors, one a scientist. My parents thought it quite odd that I didn't follow in their footsteps."

"You chose not to?" I wondered why anyone would pass up such a chance.

"To be honest, I've always found it rather dull to sit by myself and study from books. I would much rather work with something that I can get my hands on."

"Yes, I noticed that you are quite skillful with your hands," I teased, though in my mind I wondered what it would be like to be married to one of his brothers.

"Tell me about your Amazon marriage laws," Peine said. "How did they come to be?"

I smiled as I recalled the story I'd been told as a child. "According to legend, the greatest Amazon warrior ever was Xi Ne. None could defeat her. So great was her prowess that the other members of the tribe grew weak and lazy. Why should they bother to train in combat when Xi Ne was there to defend them?

"Then one of the neighboring tribes decided to invade. Their leader, arriving under a flag of diplomacy, tricked Xi Ne into drinking a sleep-inducing potion. The other Amazons were then easily defeated.

"The tribe's priestess, Ge Biaori, prayed to the goddesses to free the Amazons from captivity. So great was her faith that the gods agreed to confer to the tribe's warriors a special blessing that would allow them to defeat any man in combat."

"Any man? But not any woman?"

"Exactly. An outsider woman can defeat an Amazon warrior — and, according to the legend, if she does, she steals part of the blessing. If that happens, the Amazon has to try to give the outsider the kiss of death. It's a promise to hunt her down and kill her, no matter how long it takes."

Peine's face paled. "Kill her?"

"Yes. But most likely, the outsider won't give her the chance. If the outsider runs before she can be kissed, she falls into disfavor with the goddesses, and the blessing is returned to the tribe."

Peine breathed a visible sigh of relief. "But what about the marriage part of it?"

"The legend continues. With the gods' blessing, the Amazons soon went from conquered to conquerers. One of the captured men, a noble warrior named He Chuli, offered a challenge. He would fight Xi Ne, and if he defeated her his people would be set free. Surprisingly, he won.

"Ge Biaori communed with the goddesses and they gave her an explanation. Their blessing failing was a sign that He Chuli and Xi Ne were destined to be married. Xi Ne was ordered to seek out He and make him her husband. And she did." I laughed. "Quite a story, isn't it. Evidently the gods took a much more hands-on approach in those days."

"Yes," Peine said wistfully. "Perhaps someday they will again."

I lay back on the mat and shut my eyes. How could anyone possibly take those old stories seriously?


Weeks stretched into months. Before long, our family of two became three.

"She's beautiful!" Peine smiled as he passed the baby back to me. "Just like her mother!"

"Her father is a flatterer." I giggled as I lay back on the straw mat, undoing the buttons at the top of my dress. I wondered why Peine was so happy. Why didn't he resent me for trapping him into marriage?

Peine stared as the baby began to feed. "Pu."


"A name for our daughter. 'Pu,' meaning uncut jade. A name for someone who will be naturally beautiful, even without adornment. What do you think?"

"Interesting choice. Actually, it was my mother's name — or part of it."

"Yes, I remember. Ke Pute." Peine gazed at me sympathetically. "You must miss her."

"Yes, I do." I felt uncomfortable and decided to try to change the subject. "Very well, then." I looked down at our child as I pried her from my nipple. "Your name will be Shan Pu."

Peine smiled at the baby. "I thought that the custom here was for the child to acquire the wife's family name. Shouldn't she be Ke Pu?"

"Nonsense." I passed the baby to her father. "She's your daughter too, and according to your own tradition you deserve to have a child that carries on your own family name."

"But I don't—" Peine tweaked the baby's nose, and she giggled in response. "On the other hand, 'Shan Pu' has a fine ring to it. It's the name of someone who is destined for magnificent things one day."

"You like to think big, don't you." I teased. "What if she just grows up to be a nice, humble person?"

Peine laughed. "Then I'll be proud of her, and I'll love my family."

"You aren't angry with me?" The question slipped out. "For trapping you into marriage?"

Peine thought for a few moments, then burst out in hearty laughter. "Angry? Because I ended up married to a beautiful, kind-hearted woman in a village of friends? I'll get over it."

I laughed along with him. I don't know why I felt the way I did. Maybe it was because Peine believed in me, even though I'd given him no reason to. But at that moment, I, too, was glad that we had gotten married.

And I would be proud of my daughter as well, I told myself. She was a fresh beginning, a blank slate to be written upon. No matter what else the future might bring, I would bring little Shan Pu up to understand the shortcomings of Amazon culture as I did.


I sat around a small table in the classroom with Peine and Lan.

"Today I wanted to talk about automobiles," Lan began. "Shan Peine, you must have seen a lot of them in the city where you come from. What can you tell us about them?"

"Well, they come in all sorts of different sizes and colors. I rode in a taxi once that was quite small, even though it had to carry four of us. We were on our way to..."

This wasn't what I wanted to know. "Tell us, what makes them go?"

"Well, the driver turns a key to start them, then pushes down on a long, thin pedal to make the car move forward. I've never learned to drive myself. My father drove a car once, back in...."

"No, no!" I interrupted, slightly annoyed. "That isn't what we mean!"

"We're asking for you to tell us how they work inside," Lan explained. "I have a general idea, but I'm hoping you can tell us some of the specifics."

Peine shrugged, smiling apologetically as I heaved a sigh of exasperation. How could he possibly have lived on the outside for so long and not bothered to learn such basic knowledge?

"If you don't know, then never mind." Lan stood up. "Why don't you go help out in the kitchens, Xiao Shan. I'd like to talk to your wife for a moment."

Shan Peine waved cheerfully and exited. After he had left, I rested my face in my hands. "It's unbelievable! How could he not know any of these things?"

"It's too bad. I was hoping that he could teach us about the outside world. We might well need such knowledge in order to survive."

"So what do we do now?"

Lan paused thoughtfully. "I'm not certain."

"You said we would need knowledge from outside. If my husband can't give it to us, how will we get it?"

She sighed. "I know what conclusion you are pushing me towards. Though I wish it were otherwise, there may be no other alternative." She stood. "Let us go have a talk with the Chief Elder."


"I've already made my decision concerning this matter. You, of course, may appeal to the sisterhood at large; and, as is the custom, I shall step down as Chief Elder if the consensus is that I should."

It was a laughable thought. Grandmother was practically a living legend among our tribe. All of us knew how she had perfected her fighting skills to the utmost; how she had mastered the dragon's heaven blast — whatever it was — and who knew how many other techniques; and how she had time after time driven out enemies of the tribe. She was the closest thing to Xi Ne that we had. The sisterhood certainly wasn't going to reject her leadership anytime soon.

"I have no wish to challenge your authority, honored elder," Lan said. "I only ask you to reconsider your decision. I know that you only seek to do what is best for our people. Nevertheless, and with all respect, I fear that your present course may lead us into unintentional disaster."

I had to admire Lan for being able to defy Grandmother. I could see how uncomfortable it made her. Of course, I could have added a few choice words myself, but I had promised Lan that I would keep quiet and let her do the talking. So I just sipped my tea.

"Oh?" Grandmother glared at Lan with a look in her eyes that meant that the teacher had better explain herself, and quickly. "You believe that adopting the ways of this modern world would be beneficial to us?"

"I believe that we have no choice in the matter. This modern world, as you put it, is growing ever closer day by day. It won't leave us alone forever. We will have to be a part of it, whether we like it or not; and it would be better if it were on our own terms."

Grandmother shifted in her chair and stared intently at Lan.

The teacher continued. "You spoke of the mass destruction, of the other ugliness on the outside. What are we to do when that ugliness finds us? How are we to defend ourselves against it if we comprehend nothing of its nature? Could even your vast skill allow us to prevail against an army equipped with modern weapons, without an understanding how those weapons work?"

They were convincing arguments. Grandmother had no choice, and she knew it. There was no possibility of our village continuing to ignore the outside world and surviving indefinitely.

After a long pause, Grandmother spoke. "This course of action greatly worries me. Still, as a leader, I must put the welfare of my people ahead of... other concerns." She gazed over toward me, then back at Lan. "You may make the arrangements."

"Thank you, Grandmother." It took a great effort for me not to cry out triumphantly.


Arranging a school placement outside for me proved to be difficult. It took three years to find a university that would allow an Amazon to study among them. Nevertheless, it was accomplished. Finally, I thought, everything was going the way I wanted.

"Hi-yah!" Shan Pu scampered across the floor, slicing her hand through empty air in a pretty good imitation of a martial strike. "I'm an Amazon warrior! I can defeat anyone!" Her black hair was rolled up into twin buns on either side of her head, with a cute little bow below each one. She was about the most adorable little girl one could imagine.

"Me too!" A boy, about the same age as Pu, scurried after her. "I'm a warrior too! I'll be your husband!" He was the only child of the Mu family. His parents had reportedly invented some sort of fighting technique involving hidden weapons. His hair was quite long for a boy, and he wore glasses, his eyesight having been impaired by a birth defect.

Pu turned around. "Are you strong?"

"Huh? Well... I'm pretty strong...." The boy tried to imitate Pu's attack, but his didn't look quite right.

"An Amazon warrior needs a husband who's really strong. Are you good enough?"

"Yeah! I'm strong! I'm the strongest guy you'll ever meet!"

"Okay, I'll give you the test. If you think you're strong enough."

"I am strong enough! What's the test?"

The adorable little girl suddenly lifted her foot, forcefully knocking the Mu boy in the chin. His glasses flew into the air as he fell to the floor, landing flat on his back. "Ow! That hurt!"

Pu laughed. "Too bad, Xiao Mu. You failed the test!"

"Children! Play nice!" I scolded, glaring sternly at my daughter. "Shan Pu, that was a very mean thing to do. You tell your friend that you're sorry!"

The boy stood as he made his way toward the exit. "I'll show you, Shan Pu! I'm gonna become a master wizard! Then I'll bend you to my will!"

Pu began to cry loudly, hiding behind me.

"He can't really do that, Pu," I said. She kept on sobbing, as if she hadn't heard me. "There's no such thing as magic!"

"Shan Pu." Grandmother stepped in through the doorway. "A true Amazon warrior cannot be bent to anyone's will."

The child poked her head around my leg. "Really?"

Grandmother nodded sagely at Pu as she handed me an envelope. "These are your travel papers, Lashi. You'll need to present these to the officials at your destination."

I examined the contents of the envelope. "There's only one here. Where are the papers for Peine and Pu?"

Grandmother looked as if she were trying very hard not to smile. "They aren't going with you."

I found myself momentarily speechless. Why? Why would she deliberately keep me away from my family?

"That's all right, dear," Peine said. "I'll look after young Pu while you're gone."

"That's— that's not the point!" I glared down at Grandmother. "What— what possible reason could you have for—"

Grandmother interrupted, answering me before I could finish my question. "The purpose of your trip is to gather knowledge so that you may pass it on to the other sisters. That intent would be completely defeated if you were not to return."

It was nothing short of outrageous. My family was being held hostage to insure my return to this prison. "Grandmother, might we step into another room? I've a few choice words to say to you about this."

She shook her head. "There is no need for discussion. The matter is closed — unless, of course, you wish to forego your trip entirely."

I seethed with anger and frustration. There was nothing I could do, and if I even protested, Grandmother wouldn't let me leave. I had been outmaneuvered.


After making all my goodbyes, I departed the village on a clear, dry morning. Despite all the conflicts I'd had there, I knew that I would miss my home.

Walking for the better part of a day took me to a village named Cunzhuang. From there, I boarded a bus that was headed for Xining. Every seat on the bus was filled. Once underway, the air inside quickly filled with the awful, suffocating stench of cigarette smoke. It was like being back in the tank. I remained quiet in my seat and endured until disembarking in Xining. As I stepped out into the clean air, I wondered why I hadn't smashed my way out of the bus. Perhaps the ritual had built up my endurance; or perhaps I had failed to learn a lesson from it.

I left Xining by train. It was comfortable, albeit crowded, and I managed to sleep much of the way. The station at my destination was packed full of people; and as I went outside into the city, I found that the same was true just about everywhere. Moving around outside was like swimming in an ocean of bodies.

I found the stop for the local bus bound for Zhuangsuan University and waited, as out of the way as possible, taking in all the sensations: the constant blaring of vehicle horns, the odor of soot and tar, the sight of row after row of buildings carved in dull gray concrete and stone. The buildings were the most amazing thing. They stretched high into the sky like the legs of mythological giants, each one nearly as tall as a mountain, but as narrow as an ordinary house.

I spent the next four years at the university, acquiring knowledge. Though the other students were for the most part amiable, I had relatively little interaction with them. They didn't seem to know that modern day Amazons existed, and I had no wish to convince them; so I just told them that I was from a small, rural village in the west.

I studied mathematics and natural science. I learned the laws of logic; how an incorrect starting assumption leads to an incorrect conclusion, no matter how flawless the reasoning in between; and how, if one assumes as true a premise that is demonstrably false, one may "prove" any conclusion one wishes. These last two truths stuck in my mind as particularly significant, for some reason.

I studied engineering and technology, and the mechanical devices that I'd seen in the city became less mysterious. I took extensive notes so that I would be able to report back to the sisterhood.

I also studied the so-called "liberal arts," things such as history and literature. One area that I found of particular interest was mythology. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Norse... each of the ancient civilizations had its own set of gods that were supposed to personify various things. and all the others. The people of these civilizations lived out their lives in ways that they thought their gods wanted them to. And for all the gods of all the civilizations, there was not one scrap of evidence that indicated that they were real.

I thought about how we Amazons have gods of our own; how we live out our lives in ways that our gods have supposedly dictated. As hard as I tried, there wasn't one scrap of evidence that I could think of that indicated that our gods were any more real than any of the others.


Years flashed by in what seemed like weeks. It was time for me to leave. I said farewell to the friends I had made at the university, and started on the journey home.

Night had fallen by the time I made it home. As I staggered tiredly toward the village, I could barely make out a shadowy moonlit figure waving to me. "Husband!" I ran toward him.

"Welcome home, my wife!"

As we met, we embraced each other and kissed without embarrassment. No one could see us in the dark, anyway.

Peine took my hand in his, and we walked toward our house. "Pu is already asleep. She'll be so happy to see her mother!"

"I brought you a gift. Your favorite sparkling white wine." I gave his hand a squeeze. "Let us go enjoy it together."


I awoke the next morning to a delightful smell. I opened my eyes. A beautiful, slender girl presented me with a tray of food. "Welcome home, Mother!" she said.

"Thank you, Pu!" I took a mouthful of food. Its taste was as good as its smell. "It's so good to see you again! How you've grown!"

Pu smiled excitedly. "Mother, I won! I won the tournament!" She had told me in her last letter that she would be competing in the fighting competition for eight-year olds.

"That's wonderful!" I scooped up more ramen with my chopsticks. "My daughter has many talents; a strong fighter, and an excellent cook besides!"

"Daddy helped." She nodded to Peine, who leaned against the far wall.

"I've arranged a welcoming celebration in your honor this afternoon," Peine said as I finished off the noodles. "Your grandmother will be there, and many others. You can tell us some of what you've learned in your studies then."

"I've got a lot to tell you." My enthusiasm bubbled up, as I remembered all the things I'd discovered. "For instance, did you know that...."

Pu interrupted. "Mom, I need to go now. It's almost time for practice."

"I'd like to come along and watch." I sat up. "Let me get dressed and I'll go with you."

"Yes, Mother."


We arrived at the practice field. Shan Pu immediately started sparring with a smaller girl. Peine told me that her name was Ti Pi.

I stood and watched them go at it. Pu struck with a ferocity that had the other girl scrambling to defend herself. Ti Pi's technique wasn't bad for her age, but she was no match for the power of Pu's attacks. Soon it was all over, and Pu moved on to challenge another one of the girls.

A boy came running up. "Shan Pu! Will you marry me?"

My husband bent down to look the boy in the eye. "My name is Peine, not Pu; and I'm already very happily married." He gave the boy a friendly pat on the back.

I recognized the boy as the Mu child. "Why don't you wear your glasses?"

"Shan Pu says they look stupid." He caught sight of some other girl and ran off after her. "Shan Pu! Marry me!"


Soon, a class of ten young women had been selected for me. I began instructing them in basic mathematics. After that, we'd work on science, and when they were ready I'd start teaching them what I knew about technology.

Meanwhile, I was trying to get to know my daughter again, after having been away for so long.


I woke to the smell of pork buns, and the sight of my daughter's smiling face. "Pu?"

"I made you breakfast, Mother!"

"Why, thank you!" I sat up. "That's very thoughtful!"

"I have a question, Mother." She handed me the plate. "You told me that there was no such thing as magic. Is that really true?"

I took a bite from the food, finding it very tasty. "As far as I know, it is."

Pu clapped her hands loudly. "Lie down!"

Suddenly, the plate slipped out of my fingers as I fell with my back flat against the mat I had been sleeping on. I struggled to get up, but I was stuck as if my body weighed a ton. "Wh— What?"

Pu grinned. "I think you're wrong, Mother."


"That was a very bad thing to do to your mother, Shan Pu," I said. "I know you didn't intend any harm, but it was mean, and you should be ashamed."

Pu sat in her chair, sulking. I had no idea whether she was listening to me or not. Grandmother watched silently from off to the side.

"That wasn't magic. It was a drug. Certain chemicals interact with the human body in unusual ways, and..."

"It was magic!" Pu cried. Then she returned to staring blankly at the wall.

"It doesn't matter!" I shouted. "That's not the point! Do you hear me?"

Pu stared straight ahead.

"Shan Pu." Grandmother's voice cut through the air. "You will refrain from doing anything like this again. You will accept whatever punishment your mother gives you. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Great-grandmother." Pu's tone changed completely, becoming calmly submissive, as she turned to look directly at me. "What will my punishment be, Mother?"

"Go to your room. We'll discuss it later."

"Yes, Mother." She got up and left the room as she had been told.

I stared hotly at Grandmother. What power did she have to reach my daughter when I couldn't?

"You are wrong, you know," she said. "Magic is real."

I said nothing.

"Yes, I know, you need proof. I could take you to Zhouquanshan, and you would believe. But I've no wish to cause you permanent harm; and you would probably write off anything short of that as trickery."

I felt insulted. "Grandmother, I'll believe in your magic when I see it."

Grandmother rose from her chair. "There's an old Amazon saying. 'Often a heretic is merely someone preaching a different faith.'"

"What does that mean?!"

"You reject that which we believe because you don't see proof of it. Do you apply the same standard to what you learn on the outside? Or do you merely accept all of it without question?"

"Of course I apply the same standard." I moved toward the hallway. "Excuse me, Grandmother." There was nothing to gain by continuing the conversation. She was obviously just trying to change the subject, and I needed to talk to my daughter.


I decided to punish Pu by having her read some of the simpler books that I had brought back with me from the university. I had hoped it would spark for her some interest in the outside world. A week later, her teacher spoke with me. Pu had told her that as books were a form of punishment, she would henceforth only be reading that which she was explicitly required to.

I had no idea what to do. It seemed that my daughter was losing her love for her mother — or had already lost it — and her father was only able to smile and tell me that everything would be all right. I had to find a way around the defenses she was erecting around herself. But how?

I thought about it, and soon came up with a plan.


Pu stood on the practice field, throwing punches into empty air. She didn't bother to look at me as I walked near. "Hello, Mother."

I stood in her line of sight. "Hello, Pu. Doing a little work-out?"

"Yes, Mother." She turned to face the opposite direction, and continued as she had been.

It was time to put my plan into action. "Raw strength doesn't always win a fight, you know."

"I've done all right so far, Mother," she replied, sounding a touch more annoyed than she had.

"So far, you've been sparring with children. When you fight a real opponent, it'll be a different story. All the power in the world won't do you any good if you can't find the weaknesses in your opponent's defenses."

"I'm not good enough?" Pu stopped exercising and turned to glare at me. "Is that what you mean?"

"What I mean is..." I tried to smile calmingly. "I'm offering to teach you. I can help you become a better fighter."

"Really?" I saw something genuine flash in her eyes for a moment. "Thank you, Mother. I would appreciate that."


Pu and I walked over to the practice field. I collected two handfuls of medium-sized pebbles from the ground, and stood so that the two of us were about ten meters apart.

"The object of this challenge is for you to reach me. I'll be throwing these rocks at you, and you need to avoid getting hit by any of them. Do you understand?"

Pu nodded.


Pu charged straight at me, running straight through my hail of pebbles to tackle me to the ground. "I win!"

"No, you don't." I stood, dusting myself off. "You lose. To win, you need to avoid all of my stones."

"Why? They don't hurt."

"Because those are the rules."

"Oh." She went back to her starting point, and attacked again.

At first it went poorly, but before long she became quite good at dodging. As time went on, she also began to pay attention to my moves, to anticipate where the next rock would be thrown before it left my hand.

Our daily practice sessions continued, and before long months had passed. Pu was still somewhat cold to me when we weren't training, but at least we were spending time together. It was better than nothing.


"Mother!" Pu came running toward me enthusiastically. Grandmother followed quietly behind her.

"What is it, Pu?"

"Mother! Great news!" Her face glowed with excitement. I couldn't help smiling along with her.

"I've just met with the council of elders," Grandmother said. "Shan Pu has been deemed eligible to join the ranks of Amazon warriors."

"That's wonderful!" I felt proud of my daughter, and glad that my training of her had helped.

Grandmother looked at Pu, who had already surpassed her in height. "I will make preparations for your initiation ritual. Join us in the council hall when you're ready for the test."

The ritual. I remembered going through it myself. I had nearly drowned— and for what? No one had ever been able to explain to me what its purpose was. And how could I be sure that Pu wouldn't be drowned?

"Grandmother? Is the ritual really necessary? Surely Pu's loyalty and dedication are beyond question. Why not admit her without it?"

Grandmother turned slowly, fixing me with a hard glare. "The ritual is necessary. I owe you no explanations." She walked out.

"Oh, Mother, thank you!" Pu said. "Your training helped me so much!"

"Shan Pu...." How I wished that smile could've stayed on her face forever. But how could I allow her to risk her life, for nothing other than a pointless tradition based in myth? How could any responsible parent permit such a thing? "I can't let you do this."

"What?!" She stared at me in shock.

"You are forbidden to take the initiation. Until your Great-grandmother will admit you without the ritual, you may not become a warrior."

Pu's mouth opened, but no words came out. Her eyes glared with hatred, cold and lethal enough to lay waste to the great jungles of the world, as she silently turned and went into her room. I yearned to do something to make her feel better, but couldn't. The scene was one that I'd seen before — from the other side. My life rode on a Moebius strip, and I was powerless to get off.


Pu remained in her room all that evening, sitting facing the wall, neither speaking nor moving. Peine and I ate dinner by ourselves; he made his usual conversation, and I had little to say in return. I knew that it would be a waste of time to try to talk to him about Pu.

The remainder of the evening passed with barely a word spoken. I went to my room and lay on the mat, but sleep did not come. My husband caressed my body with his hands; I ignored him, rolling over to face the wall.

I had always wished for my daughter to be like me. Now she was, but knowing it brought me only pain. And worse yet, I had taken the role of Grandmother, standing between Pu and her heart's desire. How could I blame her for hating me? What would I have done in her place?

I thought about the question I had just asked myself. It was one that I could answer.

Slipping out of bed, I dressed quietly as Peine snored. I moved out into the hall and into Pu's room. Moonlight through the window illuminated it enough for me to see that it was empty.


I made my way to the council hall. The outer chamber was dark and deserted. A ceremonial weapons display stood on the wall, barely visible, looking like a gigantic grinning face in the darkness. It was a celebration of warrior pride. As if there were any pride to be found in petty, pointless combat.

The door to the inner chamber — the only door in the entire village — was shut. Voices echoed faintly from within. I picked up a spear, then carefully, quietly pushed the door open, and saw exactly what I expected.

The box. It was filled with water. Pu was inside it, as Grandmother and the elders watched calmly.

For a moment, my instinct as a mother fought with my loyalty for Amazon law. It wasn't much of a battle.

I threw the spear. Glass cracked. Water streamed out onto the floor.


The elders filed silently out into the auditorium. A non-descript Amazon, whom I knew to be the council's record-keeper, took center stage, bearing a scroll of paper. The audience's conversation dropped to a low murmur as she unfolded the scroll and began to read.

"Ke Lashi, the Council of Elders finds you guilty of interfering with the initiation ritual of Shan Pu. That you are her mother does not excuse this, for the law takes precedence over family concerns.

"While some council members favored sending you to Zhouquanshan, our final decision is that you be exiled from the tribe. You may petition the Council to lift this punishment at some future time when you feel you have learned a lesson."

Tai Baote the record-keeper neatly rolled up the scroll and stepped away. I stood on the stage, the target of the stares of everyone in the audience. Their eyes held sympathy for me. I walked off, silently, not looking back at my husband or my daughter.

It didn't take long to pack up the belongings that I wanted to take with me. Evening fell, blanketing the air in a dull gray haze, as I trudged down the narrow dirt road away from the village that had been my home.


It's been seven years since I left the Amazons. I'm now living in Chengdu, working as a librarian. I've read most of the books that the library has, including all the mythologies and fantasy tales, which I've recently developed a taste for.

It's been seven years since I've seen those who I once called my family. I've heard tell that Grandmother stepped down as Chief Elder; that she, Peine, and Pu left the tribe and emigrated to Japan. I've also heard that some of the students I taught have been allowed to attend outside universities. For that, at least, I'm happy, though I'm not quite sure why.

I do see Pu often in my dreams. Usually, she and I are fighting each other for no apparent reason. Often I win the combats. Then she gives me the kiss of death, and spends the rest of her life hunting me down to kill me. Other times I escape before she is able to kiss me. I feel the goddesses looking down at me. All too real, they curse me for my cowardice.

Sometimes I ask myself whether it had to be this way — whether my life could've turned out differently if I had made different choices. And if it had, would I be happier than I am now?

I'll never be able to answer these questions. I keep asking them of myself anyway. Some things never change.


AUTHOR'S NOTES: Though this is a stand-alone story, some of the themes and characters are carried over from my "Hearts and Minds" series. The real purpose behind the Amazon initiation ritual will be revealed in HaM.

This was not intended as an Amazon-bashing fic. Ke Lashi's opinions are not the author's. She and I have a lot in common, but also some big differences. As I tried to show, she is flat out wrong about some things. Her name, BTW, is based on the word "Clash."

Shan Peine's name is my own creation, but the character appears in Ranma 1/2. You can see him in the flashback scene where Pu gets her cat curse, and he's also shown working at the Nekohanten at least once.

"Zhouquanshan" (lit. "Cursed spring mountain") is the Chinese name for Jusenkyo, in case anyone hadn't guessed.

I owe thanks to Keener Barnes, Jon D. Farber, Mike Koos, Krista Perry, and David Tai for prereading the original draft of this story. Special thanks to Thomas Schmidt for a critical analysis of a revised version. Had I had the time to follow through on more of his recommendations, this story would have undoubtably been a lot better.