A Quantum Destinies side story
by D. B. Sommer
Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the folks from Ranma ½, they belong to Rumiko Takahashi, and the US rights belong to Viz Communications.
Quantum Destinies is a universe that belongs to Jurai-Knight, and he has been kind enough to let me play in it a few times.
Author's notes: Yes, this is another QD side story, but one that works into the current story line (unlike my last QD story). It's a prelude for Shampoo and her (re)appearance in QD as of chapter 16. The story looks like it will be a bit long, but hopefully will be worth the read as many of the events in it will tie in directly with the QD main story line.
"You're dead, runt!"
Shampoo didn't deign to reply as Lin Shang came at her head in a wide arc, intending to bash the young Amazon warrior's brains out with the large steel-shod staff she was wielding. Instead, the lavender-haired teenager moved fluidly to the right, allowing the weapon to pass well over its intended target and leaving Shang off-balance. Shampoo was quick to take advantage of the situation as she moved with unerring precision under what little guard remained and threw a punch into Shang's lower ribs. Judging by the cry of pain that escaped the taller warrior's lips, at least one of the bones had buckled under the force of the blow.
Rather than moving in to finish off her opponent, Shampoo backed away, allowing Shang to regain some of her wind and come at her again. Drawing things out in this manner wasn't Shampoo's usual style, but her great-grandmother had insisted that she put on a show of skill today. That meant playing with her opponents rather than putting them down quickly, as she was more apt to do. Shampoo was uncertain why Cologne had given such an order when it was contrary to her teachings, but asking had only resulted in the old woman giving a cryptic answer about seeing exactly what the young Amazon warrior could be capable of. So Shampoo did as her elder bade and had displayed a variety of techniques, trying hard not to repeat any as she dispatched each of her opponents through the rounds of the annual village tournament.
Shang mistook the retreat as a sign that her opponent was growing tired and unleashed a flurry of attacks that made even a warrior of Shampoo's considerable skills give pause. However, the speed was too much for the bigger woman to sustain. Again, Shampoo sought out a new technique she had not used for some months and lashed forth, swatting Shang hard in the nose with a sharp punch, while making sure not to follow through to the face.
Blood began a slow trickle from both nostrils. A blow to cause cosmetic damage more than physical. Now it had become evident just how much Shampoo was toying with Shang, and that served to stoke the fires of the older warrior's rage even further.
For a moment Shampoo almost felt pity for the shameless way she was humiliating Shang, but the older girl had asked for it. Earlier, Shang had gone out of her way to hurt one of the younger girls that was new to the tournament. Fang Lo barely had the skills necessary to enter, and could easily have been dispatched with a minimum of effort. But Shang, arrogant woman that she was, felt it necessary to badly injure both of Lo's legs and actually break her left arm to show off her battle prowess. Had the damage been any worse, Shang would have had to answer to the elders for the unnecessary brutality. It was one thing for such injuries to occur in a close fight, but such a display of cruelty in a one-sided fight was unbecoming of a Joketsuzoku warrior, at least concerning fighting another member of the tribe. With outsiders it was another story. They could be picked on with great impunity should the occasion call for it. It had always been that way. From blood oaths to the bonds of matrimony, there were a different set of rules when it came to dealing with those not of the Joketsuzoku.
Her anger reaching the boiling point, Shang came forth with a series of attacks that would have killed a lesser opponent. But for Shampoo, all it took was weathering a hit to the top of her shin before she retaliated by striking her opponent's legs. The blows disabled the limbs in the same manner that Shang and used on Lo earlier, though the damage was much more temporary in nature. Satisfied the message had been received, Shampoo decided it was finally time to finish things up and drew her hand back to apply a blow to the head. Despite her weakened position on her knees, Shang tried desperately to defend herself by placing her staff in front of her to block the blow. Contemptuously, Shampoo shattered the steel-shod staff with a chop, then administered a rising kick that connected solidly with the fallen woman's jaw. Eyes rolling to the back of her head, Shang's unconscious body fell limply from the battle log and to the soft earth lying below.
The tournament was officially over.
A thunderous cheer rose from nearly the entire village. All but a token few that had the unfortunate luck of drawing guard duty, mostly those that had fallen under an elder's disapproving eye, were present. Every man, woman, and child wanted to be on-hand for the most important event of the year, when the best warriors of the village under twenty-five came out to prove their worth on the battle log. Nearly everyone of any importance in the village had managed to win it at least once. The prestige involved was immense, even in a small hamlet of under five hundred.
The cheer from the villagers rose to a crescendo as the small mob chanted Shampoo's name and hoisted their new champion overhead, carrying her to the huge banquet of food that served as prize for the champion. Once seated, Shampoo made a huge production of taking a bite of leg from the nearest roasted beast that lay near her, as tradition demanded. She gave a triumphant cry and held it high overhead, a sign of approval and a signal for the others to begin the feast. She noted they did so with much enthusiasm, small surprise since, again by tradition, no one was to have eaten beforehand so that they would truly appreciate the moment. Their zeal was great enough that they at least momentarily forgot the champion in their midst, which suited Shampoo just fine, given her current mood.
It all should have been overwhelming. Winning at just under sixteen made Shampoo one of the youngest champions ever. Only the best and brightest had ever won the tournament at such an early age. Lo Xion the Wise. Tang Ni, who had traveled all over the world seeking adventure, and had found it in overabundance. Shampoo's own great grandmother, Cologne. And the most legendary of them all, Hu Chiang.
So why then did Shampoo feel so unexcited over winning? She was pleased that she had won, and enjoyed the taste of triumphing over her opponents, as always, but the thrill that she had expected at winning so important an event did not come. This victory should have been the greatest moment of her young life, a pinnacle few ever had the privilege of achieving, yet she felt little joy over either the victory or the adulation she was receiving. Could it have been in part because the two best warriors nearest her age had been unable to enter the tournament? Su Ga, who had three years on Shampoo and tended to give her a good fight every time, had disappeared last month.
Rumor said it was over a man who belonged to another, one whom she could not have, so her heart demanded she leave. It sounded foolish to Shampoo. Why throw everything away over such a small matter? To get that worked up over a man seemed ridiculous, at least to her. Of course, given Shampoo's own frustrations with the opposite sex, perhaps she simply lacked the experience to judge such things accurately. Still, Su Ga should have done something else. Leaving one's home over the inability to gain a man's interest was going too far.
Despite Su Ga's disappearance, it was the other absent warrior that she truly felt concerned about. Perfume and Shampoo had started off as the best of friends growing up. They had been neighbors and had spent many hours playfully frolicking about without a care in the world. However, the intervening years between those carefree days and the present had not been so kind. The two had gone from being inseparable to becoming dedicated rivals as childhood inevitably transformed into young adulthood. Their rivalry increased in intensity and consumed all things over time. Training. Combat. Friends. Even a man at one point, though as far as Shampoo was concerned, Perfume was more than welcome to the obsessive Mousse. Or at least she would have been had he not disappeared without a word over a year ago. Shampoo had not been very surprised by his departure. A lifetime's worth of frustrations could drive away any person to seek better fortunes.
But the rivalry with Perfume eventually peaked when it became obvious Shampoo would always come out on top. The young pink-haired warrior could not close the narrow gap between their skills, no matter how hard she tried.
And so, little more than a couple of months ago, Perfume had left without a word in the middle of the night in almost the exact same way as Mousse had done, perhaps even in imitation of it. However, Shampoo knew deep in her heart, that in her rival's case, this was just a temporary thing. Perfume's need to defeat her rival in something had been the driving force in her life, and for some reason, the new champion doubted the other girl had undergone an epiphany and would make peace the next time they met.
Then again, perhaps Shampoo's dissatisfaction was not with the quality of opposition, but with the emptiness in her heart over not having a lover to share the triumph with. It was true that, as the tournament champion, she had the right to choose practically any unmarried male in the village for the night (a problematic tradition, given some of the incidents involving past champions over some of the choices made), but Shampoo would select no man to be with her on this day. It was not that she disliked men and thought of them as little more than two-legged breeding stock, like a handful of the elders tended to even in this day and age. Nor did she prefer women, like some of her fellow warriors did.
It was simply that none of the men interested her in the slightest. They lacked something she could not put her finger on. She had not even been with a man yet, and from her discussions with most of the other girls her age, she was ending up in an increasingly small minority. But forcing herself to be with someone just to have the experience seemed wrong on some instinctual level. She was uncertain as to why she felt that way, but it was the truth, at least when it concerned her. Had anyone asked Shampoo what qualities she was looking for in a man, she would have reluctantly confessed to being uncertain. But somehow, in some way, she knew she would recognize those elusive traits once she found them. And heaven help anyone who dared to stand in her way when she did.
Such thoughts soured what few pleasant feelings she had for the festival.
Becoming annoyed with what she perceived as nothing more than a rowdy bunch of people looking for an excuse to party, Shampoo gave her farewells and left the feast, insisting the revelry continue without her. Her insistence met with little opposition, and she departed, wondering what she could do to cheer herself up.
Less than half the distance to her home had been covered when her great-grandmother approached. That the elder had not been on hand to congratulate Shampoo had been a surprise, given how fiercely Cologne insisted on the training and hardships Shampoo had to endure to become the best warrior in the village, but what was even more surprising than the elder's absence from the festival was the man who stood by her side.
He was an outsider. That much was certain, given his dark complexion and the curliness of his black hair that showed more than a hint of gray. The stranger was older, perhaps in his forties, and was just under six feet in height. His odd choice of clothing, a loose fitting plain, white shirt and black pants that showed the wear of many miles, did little to hide a frame that spoke of being in good shape. Only a slight limp in his right leg indicated there was anything wrong with his physical condition. He was not handsome by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he was somewhat ugly, with a flattened nose that had obviously been broken so many times that it would never come close to looking normal.
But that nose was not his most noticeable feature. That honor was reserved for his eyes. They were a vibrant green, full of a life and energy that was absent in most of the people his age Shampoo knew. Those emerald orbs seemed to measure and evaluate every inch of the lavender-haired girl's body. It was not that he was leering at her, as so many boys (as well as many older men) did, but it was something else. The look was closer to that of a farmer examining prime livestock he was seriously considering purchasing. The visual dissection made Shampoo shift in unease.
Much to Shampoo's surprise, her great-grandmother's first words were not congratulatory ones directed towards her victory, but rather a query made to the stranger. "So, what do you think?"
Again those eyes scrutinized Shampoo, and she wondered if she had ever been examined so thoroughly. Nodding his head, the stranger said, "I can work with her."
Softly, Cologne let out an intake of air which Shampoo recognized as great sigh of relief, at least coming from the normally reserved elder.
"Excellent. I'll prepare the necessary things, and you can set off tomorrow."
The man continued his close visual inspection of Shampoo. "Good. There's no need to waste time. Best to get started soon. There's a lot of work and ground to cover before she'll even be halfway ready for what's to come."
A sinking feeling made itself known, cutting through Shampoo's bewilderment. Things were not going the way she thought they would. Not at all. Something important was happening, and she lacked even the faintest clue as to what it might be. "Great-grandmother, what are you talking about? What's going on? Who is this man, and why does he look at me in such a way with your approval?"
The stranger raised his eyebrow at her questions. He again looked at Cologne. "She doesn't know?"
Cologne shifted uneasily. "It was necessary at the time. She didn't need the distraction. But now I have to move fast. I need to talk to my great-granddaughter alone. I hope you understand."
The man nodded reluctantly, heading off in the direction of the victory feast. Before he took more than a dozen steps, he half turned back to Cologne, a warning look in his eyes. "She has to want to go. I won't force someone to follow my path. She has to want this in her heart, otherwise she goes nowhere. At least not with me."
Cologne gave a dismissive wave with her walking stick. "That's not going to be a problem. Once Shampoo and I have our talk, it will all become clear to her, and she'll be eager to do what needs to be done. That I promise you."
The unknown kept chipping away at what little patience Shampoo still had. Her temper began to fray. She despised being talked about as though she was not there. "What will become clear?"
Rather than answer, immediately, Cologne began to walk in the opposite direction of the celebration. "Follow me, great-granddaughter. There are many things to discuss, and we haven't much time left to do it."
The penchant her great-grandmother had for understatements irritated Shampoo to no end. Knowing better than to complain, even given her mood, the lavender-haired girl remained silent and began walking hurriedly alongside her great-grandmother. Despite her tiny legs hidden under her dress, the old woman could move with great speed when the times called for it.
At first they walked in silence. It quickly became evident to Shampoo they were heading outside the village. It was not until the reached the very outskirts that Cologne began speaking at last. "This is a time of great importance in our lives."
"You mean about winning the tournament?" Shampoo asked.
"No. The tournament comes every year, and the outcome rarely holds surprises. I meant it is a time of great importance in all of our lives. The whole tribe's. As you know, we are a conquered people under the sway of the Empire."
Shampoo quoted, "The mosquito cannot bring down the tiger. Instead it must learn to live off the blood of the tiger until the great beast dies. Only then can the mosquito be free once again. It is not the first time in our history we have been conquered by those far mightier than us. But our masters of the past are dead and yet we remain, as we always have and as we always shall."
Cologne nodded at the adage. "True. Very true. But it appears the Empire's rule might stretch past even your lifetime. They seem to be made of stern stuff. It might be several generations before the Empire rots at its core and withers as all empires eventually do. Until that time, we must learn to live off the blood of the tiger.
"The tiger's reach continues to grow with each of its victories. And as it grows, what was once the border of its empire eventually becomes part of the heartland, and once considered part of the heartland, more attention is given to it. Thus far we have avoided the tiger's attention. We surrendered under agreeable terms which maintained our basic autonomy, even if we do have to pay tribute and lip service to those that claim ownership of our lands. We cause no problems, and therefore we have little of interest to the tiger, which finds its claws filled with other predators that would resist its grasp. That might not always be the case. In time, it might deal with those predators, and turn its attention inward and towards us. Since that possibility exists, the council has decided to become closer to the tiger, at least in its eyes."
Shampoo listened intently. In general, she had little interest in politics, usually tuning out when her great-grandmother went into one of these speeches. But this time there was a difference. This time this speech had a direct bearing on Shampoo's life.
"The council of elders got together recently to discuss this matter," Cologne continued. "As it stands now, we are not true people in the eyes of the Empire. Oh, we exist, but only as a 'barbaric' resource they might one day use for their benefit. This situation is unpalatable to us. If we must suffer under the yoke of another, we will do so as minimally as we can. Fortunately, there is a way to do just that."
"We must become official citizens of the Empire," Shampoo completed for her.
That lifted Cologne's eyebrows in appreciation. "Well, well. I see you have been paying some attention to the more cerebral lessons I have tried to teach you."
"I always did." At least, most of the time.
That made Cologne snicker. "You enjoy lessons in the body and spirit far more than the mind." The older woman noted Shampoo's face scowl as she began a retort. Quickly the old woman added, "Do not be offended. It is simply your way. The opposite holds true for many others. Do not assume I have passed judgment upon you in some way. "
The younger girl seemed to accept that explanation, though with some reluctance.
Seeing Shampoo calm down, Cologne continued, "You were right. We must become citizens. However, we wish to be careful about the manner in which we shall achieve our goal. Thus we shall move slowly in this direction and see what gaining citizenship will truly mean for the Joketsuzoku. To that end, we shall send out one of the younger generation on this mission of great importance."
Shampoo felt her heart racing in both fear and excitement. "You mean me."
"We decided the winner of the tournament would be the most appropriate emissary for what we have in mind," Cologne corrected.
"Everyone knew I would win," Shampoo pointed out. It was no secret she was the best in the village, with only Perfume coming in a close second.
"They suspected. I hoped. I did not inform you of this for fear of distracting you before the tournament," Cologne admitted. "There are several ways to gain citizenship in the Empire. Doing some great service in their name. Joining their armed forces for a number of years. Marriage to a citizen."
Shampoo's head jerked slightly at that.
"Relax," Cologne soothed. "You are not being ordered to marry an outsider. We would never prostitute ourselves that way. A man would still have to prove himself worthy in some manner to officially be accepted as marriageable material. Unless it was a matter of love for the warrior in question. Then, of course, the warrior could marry as she so chose." Cologne watched closely to gauge Shampoo's response to that statement. Much to her disappointment, all her great-granddaughter did was scowl a bit. The elder decided to remain silent and see if prodding would get a different reaction, one closer to what Cologne desired.
Sensing her elder was not in any hurry to continue, Shampoo finally found the courage to ask, "What do you want me to do?"
The child had given up too quickly on that line of thought, Cologne noted. That unwillingness silenced whatever doubts she had held in her mind. "There is still another way to gain citizenship. One which plays perfectly into our way of life, surprisingly enough. One which the champion of the tournament would be ideally suited for.
"You must fight in the Arena."
"The Arena?" Shampoo asked.
"A huge coliseum in the heart of the Empire where millions watch the best fighters in the world compete to see who the mightiest is. The ultimate prize of their battles: full Citizenship in the Empire. And more importantly, a place of respect in the eyes of the outsiders as well"
Shampoo's eyes fairly glowed at the idea. To be regarded as the best of the best? To fight against those who might truly test her while millions, instead of hundreds, watched on? Now that sounded tempting. Very tempting indeed. Glory on a level undreamed of could be hers. And the competition, she could almost feel her heart race in anticipation at the very idea she could be taken to the limit.
But then another voice spoke in her head, warning her of the disadvantages to such a thing. It would mean being away from home, left alone in a foreign land where she knew no one and nothing. She would be completely alone for the first time in her life. And she could barely speak Japanese. How would she communicate? She didn't understand the customs and habits of outsiders. There were too many unknowns. It was all very frightening. Perhaps too frightening.
So lost in thought was Shampoo, that she had not even realized her great-grandmother had gone right on talking. "We've even placed a special order for a television set for the village so that we might see how well you do. I can't wait to see the look on Be Dea's face when you're on television, and she has to watch your victories."
It seemed Shampoo's fate had been decided some time ago. It was terrible. Events were moving too fast. Already her great-grandmother had decided to throw her out into the pack of hungry wolves with no warning. There were many reasons why this idea was bad. Shampoo had to point them out before it was too late. "What if I lose? I would look like a fool before the world and bring shame to the village."
Cologne held up a single finger. "First, not a single member of this village in all of its history has never known the taste of defeat. You have simply not been forced to deal with it as much as others. In general, that is a good thing, though there are disadvantages to it as well. None should live with the arrogant belief that they are invincible. It only hurts all involved, especially when they are proven wrong.
"Second, you underestimate yourself. You are the greatest fighter I have ever seen at your age. I will not lie to you. You are faster, stronger, more durable, and have greater endurance than anyone ever has been at the age of fifteen, including myself, who was the greatest warrior of my generation. Although it was not by the degree of margin you have. Only Perfume has ever came close to your near inhuman abilities. Unquestionably, this is a gift from your father, who was almost as good as you are, though he was a bit older when he finally settled here. You've seen him work out. You know what I mean."
Slowly, Shampoo nodded her head. Her father was a man of even temper, and rarely fought, even to stay in shape. Those few times he did though, he was like a whirlwind cutting through his opponents as though they did not exist. Even her mother, who was one of the best warriors of her own generation, still fell to him in under five minutes no matter how hard she tried. Though she dealt with losing at her husband's hands much better than others did. Far too well in Shampoo's opinion, as she had learned over time to stay away from her parents for several hours when they were in such an amorous mood.
Intellectually, she knew it was normal for married people to behave in such a manner, but they were her parents, and she disliked thinking of them in such terms. Though of late there were times when she found herself longing at the idea that a man might prove himself worthy of her affections in such a manner. One that could conquer her heart as well as her body, as her father had done to her mother so many years ago. But it seemed an impossible dream. No man in the village had come close to doing either, and none were threatening to change the status quo.
Cologne held up a third finger. "There is also another reason why you should go. One that has nothing to do with the council's decision. It is of a much more personal nature. You need to get out of here."
Shampoo gaped at her great-grandmother in shock. "What do you mean?! Why must I leave my home for some far off, strange land where the people will treat me like dirt while I fight for their entertainment?!" Her vision became blurry with tears at the perceived rejection by one who meant so much to her.
Quick to keep matters from falling apart, Cologne clarified things. "Think, Shampoo. Are you happy at winning the tournament?"
The sudden shift in the nature of the conversation caught Shampoo off-guard. "What sort of question is that? Winning the tournament is every warrior's dream. I've trained for years for a moment such as this. I've longed for this day practically all of my life, and you're asking me if I enjoyed winning it? Of course I did."
Shampoo's flippant answer earned her a rap to the head with the gnarled staff. "I did not ask you if you enjoyed winning! I asked you if you were happy!"
The young Amazon's answer was more respectful this time. "I am happy I won."
A soft sigh escaped Cologne's lips. "And so you answer my question by avoiding an answer."
Shoulders slumping in defeat, Shampoo said almost demurely, "I intended no disrespect. I did enjoy winning and am happy about that, but it was easy and left me feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled. I know it shouldn't be that way. I understand the tremendous honor and respect I've earned in winning the tournament, but it only leaves me with a hollow feeling inside."
Cologne nodded her head. "I knew it when you came back from your victory party so early, looking the way that you did. I even guessed well beforehand that was what would happen. For the last couple of years I have noticed this change in you. At first, I believed it was merely the changes brought on by becoming a woman, but over the last few months it has become clear to myself and your parents that it is something else that troubles you. Tell me, what man have you chosen to spend the night with?"
Shampoo snorted at that. "None of them interest me in the slightest."
"And that is another part of the problem," Cologne said. "Aside from your inability to find suitable companionship, you have no friends."
"I have friends!" Shampoo interrupted.
"Oh?" The look Cologne gave was one of incredulity. "Tell me, Shampoo, which of the girls do you share your deepest secrets with? And which ones share theirs in turn? Who is it you turn to first when you need advice or to share some tidbit of gossip with? Who is it you would give your life for if it was required? Who is it that goes out of their way to help you out when you need it, or even offers to do so, even if you don't ask?"
Each question cut as sharp as a razor. Helplessly, Shampoo tried saying something, but realized she could not. There was no name she could give voice to that would have rang true.
Cologne said aloud what Shampoo already knew in her heart, yet had to hear with her ears. "You have acquaintances you are on good terms with, almost confidants, perhaps, but they are not your true friends anymore than you are theirs. The only one that might have qualified early on was Perfume, but we saw how that turned out. She is much like you, in that way. She too had no close friends, and the only man that seemed to catch her eye was Mousse, and even then I suspect it was partly because he paid so much attention to you. It is not that you are a bad person or unapproachable. In fact, there is no concrete reason why you should not have many friends and lovers, but it is the truth all the same. You cannot help being the way you are.
"So ask yourself this: if there is no one to give your heart to, no close friends and none on the horizon, and if you have accomplished the single greatest achievement possible in this village, and it still has not made you happy, what will?"
Shampoo felt her world being torn out from under her. Perhaps deep down inside she had known these things were the truth, but she did not want to admit them. They were ugly realities that needed to be stuck back out of sight and not confronted for as long as possible. It was easier to live with them in hiding than to face the problems and deal with them. But it could no longer be. Her great-grandmother had seen to that. The facts were there, laid out before her and undeniable in their truth. And once given to the light of day, they could never be forced to return to the darkness. Never.
Feeling her life now hollow and empty as it was laid out before her, Shampoo gave her great-grandmother a helpless look that was more reminiscent of a small child instead of a proud champion warrior. "Do you think I will find what it is I seek in this Arena?"
Sympathy poured off Cologne in waves. In her youth, she had been afflicted with a wanderlust that made her unable to remain in the village either. What Shampoo suffered from was not the same problem, but still similar enough that Cologne could understand what she was going through. "I think you need to leave here and have both fate and your abilities guide you to whatever destiny lies ahead. It might take you to the heights of happiness undreamed of, or it might take you through pain and misery that would make even the Gods shed tears, but I do know that what you need to make you happy is not in this village at this time. And it is always better to seek out happiness instead of waiting and hoping it will come to you."
Again, the words rang true deep in Shampoo's heart. More ugly truths she did not want to hear. It was not fair. Why should everyone else be able to find happiness here other than her?
But that wasn't exactly true. Hadn't Mousse left when he could not find what he sought in the village? What of Su Ga and the love she could not have? What of Perfume, and the mysterious journey she had embarked on? Had not all of them sought out their fortunes and happiness elsewhere? Was Shampoo lacking in the courage those others, particularly her greatest rival, possessed?
No. It would take courage, but those others had shown Shampoo it could be done. Her great-grandmother was right. It was time for her to leave the nest and learn what the rest of the world was like. It would be frightening, but she would deal with it. Deal with it and thrive. She would show the world what the mightiest warrior of Joketsuzoku could do. She would show the elders they had made the right choice in allowing her to represent the tribe. She would become a citizen of the Empire, no matter what it took.
Giving her great-grandmother a spirited look that was full of almost as much trepidation as courage, Shampoo asked, "Do you think I'll ever return home?"
In response, Cologne gave a smile. "Home is where your heart and happiness lies. What I do believe is that you will return, though it is a mystery even to me if it will be forever, or just to visit the place you once called home."
Again, the words rang true. And this time they did not fill Shampoo with dread, but hope. With the matter finally settled in her heart, the young warrior began working on the details of what she still had to do to set off on her newfound quest. "When do I leave?"
That was soon. Too soon, but Shampoo seemed to have little choice in the matter. "I see. Did that outsider that was with you have something to do with this? I thought his eyes were going to bore holes in me as close as he was looking."
Cologne felt a surge of pride at how quickly Shampoo had come to accept what fate had dealt her. "Indeed he does. His name is Jaddo N'Digi. He comes from another conquered people, called the Aborigines, in the Imperial Territory of Australia. He is a trainer and agent of sorts for those that wish to participate in the Arena. He himself once fought for the prize of citizenship some years ago."
"Did he win?"
"No. He made it as far as the semi-finals before falling to another who was better than him. That he can freely admit such speaks much about him." Cologne paused a moment before continuing. "When the council decided on this course of action for you, we investigated the potential trainers thoroughly before selecting him. His credentials are extensive and his reputation just as impressive. I interviewed him myself when we met a little ways from the village several days ago. He is a bit rough around the edges, but I could tell immediately he is fair and trustworthy. I would not place you in another's care so recklessly."
The implication unnerved Shampoo. "I am to travel alone with him? Aren't you coming along?"
Cologne shook her head. "Even if I could somehow leave my duties behind, I would not go. This is something you must do for yourself, without any aid from me. Jaddo is the only one who has the ability to help you now. He will train you in the things you need to know in order to not only make it to the Arena, but succeed and thrive there as well. I will warn you that the path is not an easy one. It is filled with difficulty and hardship. You will spill much blood, both yours and that of others, before even getting close to your goal."
"I understand," Shampoo said, a mix of fear and anxiousness eating away at the outward calm she tried to project.
Despite her efforts, Cologne could sense Shampoo's struggle with her contradictory emotions. It had been the same for her when she first gave into her wanderlust and left, just a year older than Shampoo at the time.
"Be at ease with Jaddo, as well as patient with his ways. They will not be like ours, yet he must be obeyed, for he knows far more about what you have to do than everyone in the council combined. I will say you are somewhat fortunate. He is particular about who he trains. He refused to accept you until he saw you in an actual fight. I think you impressed him."
Shampoo sniffed disdainfully at that. "Why wouldn't he be? I am the champion of the tribe this year."
That made Cologne chuckle. "He is not the kind to be impressed by titles. Just be thankful he liked what he saw. He will be your best chance of success on the long journey that lies before you."
There were many other questions Shampoo had, but they could wait until later. All the information she truly needed had been given to her. She understood what her duty was, and what would be required of her. Placing her hand over her heart, she vowed, "I will do as you say. I will bring honor to our people and show the world what the Joketsuzoku are made of. I will not return without becoming a Citizen first. This I promise you."
And so it was done. Cologne bowed solemnly in return. "Packing should not take long. You will be traveling light and on foot, as least at first. That is what Jaddo has ordered, and that is the way it shall be. You had better get going. Your parents already knew this was coming, and they will wish to make their good-byes to you as well as you with them. And I am sure you will want to give your farewells to some of your closer acquaintances as well. You'll be leaving early in the morning. I will be the last to see you off at the edge of the village."
"I understand." Shampoo hurried off to do as her great-grandmother suggested. Much to the young girl's surprise, now that she had come to terms with the upcoming journey, she found herself feeling better than she had in a very long time. She would miss her parents, her home, her friends, even some of her enemies, but when she compared the life she knew to the unknown lands that lay before her, she found hope far outweighing anxiety.
In her heart, she had already taken the first step down the path of the warrior.
To be continued.
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