Lost Faith: 2

Hakkai healed Goku’s wound as best he could, but the kid was still walking with a noticeable limp. But really, when you got right down to it, it wasn’t the physical wound that was getting to him, but the mental ones eating him up inside. Sanzo had scored damned well, if his aim was to cause as much pain and suffering as possible in the wake of his departure.

It had taken a while to sink in, but once Goku had realized that Sanzo had actually shot him – – purposefully. That Sanzo had stormed off very adamantly not wanting any of them as company – – for good, if one were to take the monk at his word. After that, the kid had sat in his room, huddled miserably in the corner of his bunk, back against the wall, knees pulled up under his chin, eyes as mournful as Gojyo had ever seen them, leaking the occasional tear down a dirt streaked face. He refused to talk about it, after the first initial bout of desperate questions they couldn’t answer. He refused food, which was a fine sign of just how much he was suffering.

Hakkai had tried to tempt him out of his funk with an array of his favorites, fresh cooked and emitting a mouthwatering aroma. No go. Gojyo and Hakkai ended up picking at the food themselves, but their own appetites were suffering as well and a good deal of the bounty went to the dog that lived out in the inn’s back yard.

“He’ll get over it.” Gojyo said to Hakkai, the evening after Sanzo’s stunt, sitting out back of the inn, smoking the second or third of the night’s cigarettes. Hakkai had leaned against the doorway, devoid of his usual placid face.

“Maybe.” He’d ventured, though he didn’t sound entirely certain.

“Maybe?” Gojyo titled his head to peer up.

“Goku doesn’t think like we do. He’s not able to lie to himself quite so readily. He’s more straightforward – – simple – -”

“You’re telling me.”

“Not simple as in stupid – – more honest simple. He sees things in black and white, right and wrong. When he loves he doesn’t put boundaries on it. Or expectations. Sanzo’s hurt him before with his words, but Goku forgives because he knows Sanzo can’t help it sometimes – – he knows Sanzo doesn’t mean it.”

Gojyo lifted a dubious brow. “I could argue that point with you.”

Hakkai ignored that interruption, staring up at the murky sky of a dusk that promised rain. You could feel it in the air, heavy and moist.

“But even though he threatens it daily, Sanzo’s never actually hurt him before physically. I really don’t think Goku knows that Sanzo wasn’t aiming to kill him.”

“Who says he wasn’t?” Gojyo growled, his own personal irritation against the priest beginning to swell.

Hakkai gave him a reprimanding look. “Sanzo hits what he aims at, Gojyo. It was nothing more than a very effective method of keeping Goku from following him. Brutal, but effective.”

“I’m gonna kick his ass into next week when he shows his sorry face again.”

“If. If he shows his face again.”

Which correction shut Gojyo up rather effectively, making his stomach lurch a little in a way that was disturbing. He’d told himself after the big tantrum, when they were trying to calm Goku down after they’d gotten him back to the inn, hands red with his blood, shaking with rage, that Sanzo could do whatever the hell he wanted, that they were through with him. They’d followed his sorry ass across the country, gotten into uncountable deadly scrapes, survived more grievous injury than he could easily recount and put up with his attitude and his moods and his threats. For what? So he could throw a fit at the end and decide he’d had enough and just walk off and leave them? Right. For all Gojyo cared, Sanzo could be dead in an ally somewhere and Gojyo wouldn’t slacken his pace walking by.

Which was what he’d told himself. Insisted vehemently while he’d been simmering outside in the inn’s yard when Hakkai had been doing what healing he could inside with Goku. He was glad Sanzo had taken off for parts unknown with no intention of returning.

Of course him telling himself that in the heat of anger and Hakkai calmly predicting the same thing were two different things. Gojyo said quite a few things when passion was upon him. Hakkai didn’t rant and he didn’t talk to hear the sound of his voice, which meant that when Hakkai said things a man tended to take them to heart. Hakkai didn’t think Sanzo was coming back either. And if Hakkai thought it maybe it was so.

The idea of Sanzo being gone for good and the reality were quite different things, Gojyo discovered. It irked. He ground his teeth, breaking off the filter of his cigarette quite neatly. He spat out the stub still in his mouth and rose. Hakkai looked up at him quizzically.

“I’m going out.”

“Where?”

“Just out. Around. Maybe get a drink.”

“Its early.”

“It won’t be when I get back.”

So after two days of swearing to himself that he didn’t give a goddamned, he was going out looking for the monk, all his convictions out the window like so much garbage. Well, not all of them. The ass-kicking one was still riding high on his list of priorities. Just not quite so high as finding Sanzo and making sure that he hadn’t disappeared forever.


Sanzo wasn’t exactly sober and that was dangerous in this part of town where the stink of bilge from the river ships drifted up from the docks and the law didn’t venture. But then again, maybe it was danger he was looking for. An excuse to perpetrate violence against someone who truly deserved it, as opposed to . . . .

Stop it. Stop feeling guilt and regret, because guilt and regret were useless emotions that wouldn’t get him anywhere. Guilt and emotion would only drag him down to a place he didn’t want to be, would strengthen attachments that he didn’t want strengthened. Attachments better off severed for good and all, just like he’d severed his connection with a faith that had betrayed him. The gods, for all he cared could go and fuck themselves. Sanzo said that out loud, into the cool air of night, sneering up belligerently at a night sky devoid of stars, hoping one of them was paying him some bit of heed now and daring retribution. Even if he did piss them off enough to get off their asses and strike him down, what would it really matter. What would he be missing in the long run?

Gods, but he was getting morose. It was the liquor for the most part. He made a sullen drunk and he knew it, as much from a certain degree of self-awareness as from witness recounts on the morning after. Goku’s retellings were always less than amusing, though never so annoying as Gojyo’s. Though Gojyo hadn’t been complaining much of late, considering.

Stop thinking about that, too, so the nagging little itch in his pants would fade. Though the number of careless bulges in trousers in this tavern were numerous, Sanzo didn’t want to be counted among the casually horny. Not in public.

He had heard of a river boat that made a weekly trip down the river, past Tinto’s sister city of Ruvan and its high population of youkai and out towards the distant coast. A long journey that would veer him away from the constant westward path he had been taking, but that was the point, wasn’t it. To distance himself from the thing that had been driving him these past long months. To divest himself of the fate that the gods and their mortal tools had driven him towards.

The only reminder of the powers that be and their earthly conduits that he did keep was the credit voucher and he’d gotten as much cash as he could from that, figuring that once word got back, maybe via Hakkai returning the sutra, maybe by more divine means, that abundant source of credit would dry up. His pockets were full of it now, strings of the popular coin of the region, which was by far more burdensome than paper money, but more versatile, he supposed if one planned to use it ten towns down the road. Silver and gold held their value far better than colorfully printed parchment.

He’d found the captain of the river boat at a crowded, boisterous tavern deep in the dockside district and haggled over the price of passage. Even drunk the grimy old river rat had a sharp mind when it came to coin and managed to settle on a fare that lightened Sanzo’s pockets considerably. But, it was a three week journey and there would be food supplied and a private cabin instead of a pallet crammed in amidst the boat hands or the other paying passengers. Sanzo was willing to pay for comfort if it was to be had.

Quite a few eyes had been drawn to the coin exchanging hands, but Sanzo figured that since the majority of it had gone to the river captain, any thieves in the night would be dogging his heels. He’d see what else he could squeeze out of the voucher tomorrow before the boat sat sail. For the time being, he was tired, and unsteady on his feet and common sense said return to the cheap room he’d rented since leaving the one he’d shared with Gojyo to sleep off too much liquor and too little food.

He sensed he was being followed a block from the tavern. The hairs on the back of his arms stood up in alarm as shadows shifted silently behind him. So, apparently someone had thought he’d had enough coin left on him to make it worth their while. They’d find out otherwise, most certainly. He slipped his hand into the pocket of his coat and brushed the smooth grip of his gun with his thumb. It was cool and heavy and sweet to the touch. He kept walking, wondering if he ought to let them make their move first or take a detour into one of the many dark alleys and initiate the game himself.

His mood was dark enough that he opted for the latter. He walked into the next open alleyway, kicking trash out of his way as he moved into the shadows. It was easy to hear them follow him, quickening their pace, eager as wolves on the hunt when they realized their prey had ventured down a blind path.

“Take a wrong turn?” A voice asked and Sanzo stopped and turned, hands in his pockets, head canted to the side as he picked out the shapes in the darkness. Three of them. Lean and hungry and out for an easy mark.

No problem.

“No. I’m right where I want to be. Looks like you might be lost.”

They didn’t know what to make of that, of his calm tone, of his casual stance, of the distinct lack of the fear that any reasonable man ought to be showing faced with the three of them in this dark alley.

“What’re you, a foreigner? No decent color to you, all pale like you crawled out from under a rock somewhere.” One of them sneered, trying to regain shaken courage. Sanzo had been wrong. They weren’t anything like wolves, they weren’t that bold. They were scavenger beasts, hoping for helpless prey and faltering when a few teeth were shown. All he’d have to do was show the gun and they’d probably be off. Disappointing. He’d wanted to cause a little pain.

He took a sauntering step towards them and they shifted nervously.

“Look, if you don’t want to end up with your throat slit you’ll hand over what’s in your pockets.”

Sanzo lifted a brow, shrugging and pulled out the gun. “This? You want this. Lead’s not as valuable as gold, but it makes a nicer hole when going through flesh.”

They gaped, starting like rabbits, on the verge of scattering, but blocked of a sudden from retreat by the appearance of a group of men who did not hesitate at all in stomping into the alley.

“Hey there, what’s going on here? Are you looking for a thrashing, harassing proper folk? Be on your way, scoundrels.”

Whether they were the law or not, Sanzo didn’t know, it was dark and their dress seemed as plain as the men they’d chased away. But there was nothing furtive about them – – five of them – – and they seemed of good cheer. Maybe not the law at all, but simple working men heading home after a night’s drinking who’d come to lend a hand when they saw foul things afoot.

“You all right? You have to be careful ’round here. They’ll cut your throat for a decent pair of sandals.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that.” Sanzo slid the gun into his pocket, hand still on the grip. They seemed to be waiting, so he moved out towards the street, passing through their ranks warily, flinching and baring his teeth when a hand clapped down upon his shoulder and an amused voice said. “Saw you in the tavern talking to that old river rat Cho.”

“Remove your hand.” He said softly, looking up into a man’s eyes with nothing of idle threat in his own. The man blinked, seeing for the first time that this was no helpless victim they had saved from robbery. The hand withdrew.

“Sure. Sure. No problem there. Touchy one, aren’t you?”

“He’ll learn to live with it.” Someone snickered from behind him and he cursed himself for putting himself in their midst, when they were in no wise weak or timid or likely to be easily scared off by the appearance of a gun. The one who’d touched him was the easiest mark. Take him down and make for the opening to put a little distance between himself and them. He had the gun out, but the barrel had barely cleared his pocket before something slammed down between his shoulders, knocking the wind from his lungs and making him stagger a step he hadn’t meant to stagger, putting him into the big body of the man he’d planned on shooting. He got the gun up and several someones shouted at its appearance. He pulled the trigger, not even sure where the muzzle was pointed and there was a muffled cry, so maybe he’d hit the one man, but it wasn’t enough and he was off his balance and going down when someone kicked the back of his knee in, and then someone else threw his not inconsiderable weight upon his back. He twisted, desperate to get his gun arm free, figuring that it really didn’t matter where the gun was aimed, they were so crowded around him that he’d hit flesh regardless.

“Don’t bruise his face,” He heard someone gasp. “Market won’t pay as much if you bruise his face . . .”

God. He doubled his efforts, getting his arm up and squeezing off a shot that was immediately muffled by flesh. Someone screamed. Someone else slammed a knee down on his arm, pinning gun and hand to the ground, bending back his fingers to relieve him of it despite his best efforts. There was an arm around his neck and maybe more than one man on him. He couldn’t breath. Cursing only made the air in his lungs deplete that much faster. The burning pain in his chest proceeded the faintness in his head. Six seconds later he ceased to care about either one.

 

Sanzo came to with his face pressed against filthy straw and his shoulders crying bloody murder. He hissed and tried to turn to relieve the pressure, but that was no easy task, he found, with his arms bound at wrist and elbow and his legs lashed together at the ankles. He couldn’t feel his fingers, but the pounding in his head was more from hangover than blunt impact and it didn’t feel as if he had anything more serious than bruises on his body.

There was something crawling under his clothes and in his hair, most likely some denizen that lived in the dirty straw. Fleas or lice attracted to warm skin and blood. There were a dozen grunting pigs crowded together in a pen not far from where he lay, their blunt muzzles digging in the straw for stray tidbits of food. Perfect. Just fucking perfect.

He spent a few moments cursing his luck, a long, creative stream of profanity that was muffled by the thick wood and the straw and only appreciated by the pigs. He was in the belly of a boat. He figured that out once he’d calmed down enough to realize the rolling motion he felt wasn’t nausea but the pitch of a hull on water.

What had they said when they were trying to take him down, “Market won’t pay as much if you bruise his face.” Slavers. What were the odds that he’d be drunk enough and unlucky enough to get taken down by a bunch of petty flesh merchants when he had just divested himself of the only people who might take note of his disappearance? Not that he needed them to cover his ass. He could do that perfectly well on his own – – all he needed was an opportunity. He twisted his hands looking for any tiny bit of give in the rope and found none. His shoulders ached all the more for the effort. He cursed a little more, until his breath ran short and he lay panting in frustration on the straw.

This was not karma. He did not fucking believe in karma but he wouldn’t put it past certain deities to deliver a little divine retribution for offenses given. He delivered a last few curses up at the divinities in question and lay afterwards glowering at the pigs, who stared back at him with flat black eyes, most likely wondering if he was edible.

Okay, he was on the river. Going where? Ruvan was the nearest port, so he’d heard and considerably more raucous a town than Tinto. Ruvan’s population was a good deal youkai and youkai of late were considerably less law abiding than even the most notorious human, though Gojyo would argue that that was a broad, unfair statement with him till the both of them came to blows. But fact was fact, the youkai were being driven to acts of bestiality by the same evil he was supposed to be heading towards in the west, and whether fault of their own or not, Sanzo had no desire to be deposited in a youkai meat market on the best of days. He’d heard in some tavern or another that there was a slave trade in the territory, that there were mines manned by human and youkai that were not free and fields tended by the same. Of course mines and fields did not require a bruise free face, so he supposed there were also brothels that depended on the trade to fill their ranks as well.

Time passed. Hours it seemed of constant gentle swaying, of the creaking of boards and the grunting of pigs. He almost didn’t differentiate the creaking of weight on the narrow stair leading down into the belly of the boat from the natural sound of wood groaning under the pressure of water. But the hairs standing up on the back of his neck warned him that he was no longer alone with the pigs. He didn’t bother to turn his head to watch them come, not inclined to give them the pleasure of seeing him nervous over their presence. He simply lay there and stared up inquiringly as they moved to stand over him, crouched just a little to accommodate the low ceiling. Two of them, burly and unshaven and unwashed. He didn’t recognize them from the alley, but then he’d not been paying them as much heed as he ought to have.

A sandal poked him in the sternum, not too hard, just enough to threaten his breath, a warning of what they could do if they wished.

“You killed Koh’va and wounded Benkai.”

Sanzo continued to stare up, unblinking.

“Should have slit your throat then and there for that.” The one knelt, while the other towered over them both, hostile and threatening. “But there’d be no profit in that, and Koh’va would have died for nothing. He’d have wanted for us to make a little gold off your sorry hide. I’ll see to it that you go to the worst youkai brothel in Ruvan. Human whores don’t last long anyways there, after a hundred or so youkai have been at them. You’ll be popular for certain, with that pretty face and your foreigner coloring. They’ll be lining up around the block to ride you, boy.”

“What’s your name?” Sanzo asked quietly and the slave trader frowned, off his balance at the calm question in the face of his threats.

“Jimbo Oda. What’s it to you, meat?”

“Just want to know who it is I’ll be killing when I come back and put you out of the world’s misery.”

Oda hissed and drew back his hand, then quelled the urge to smash his fist into Sanzo’s face and grabbed his hair instead, jerking his head backwards and sneering into his face. “Big words – – I’d burn out your tongue before I sold you, only the brothels, they like their whores to have their tongues, so’s it makes a softer ride when the youkai are skull fucking the life out of you.”

Sanzo spat into his face and the river rat cursed and flung him backwards, standing up and wiping the spittle off his face and barking to the man behind him. “Take him up on deck and clean him up before he goes to market. Don’t feel the need to be gentle about it. Won’t hurt my feelings if he’s got a few more bruises afore we sell him.”

 

It was humiliating and infuriating and a morose preview of what was to come, when Sanzo was hauled above decks and into painfully bright sunlight. He thought maybe he wasn’t the only human captive on board, if the flashes of half a dozen somber, frightened faces huddled and bound together on deck were any indication. He didn’t get the chance to really see, ass up over the shoulder of the river rat who’d carried him up from the belly of the boat. There were maybe a dozen crew and they crowded around, eager to help, quite jovial about it, actually, when Sanzo started struggling and cursing as they put the noose around his neck.

For a moment he thought they’d given up on the notion of selling him and decided to kill him outright and he panicked, much to his own chagrin when the noose tightened. But they put his bound feet on the deck and left him standing there, fighting for balance, held upright by the rope thrown over the yard arm. It wasn’t killing tight, but it cut off enough of his breath that cursing at them was difficult. He lost more air when they tossed a pail of river water onto him, then another and another, dousing him thoroughly.

They ripped open his shirt, popping buttons this way and that, and went for his pants, none of which he could properly protest, without danger of strangling.

“Wash him good down there.” One of the onlookers jeered. “That’s what they’ll be looking at when they go to buy him.”

That caused a great deal of amusement and a rough hand and a rag scraped over his belly and across his genitals, while another one wedged between his buttocks. He shut his eyes and thought terrible, terrible things. Mass murder and burning boats and a great deal of blood on his hands.

“He’s smooth as a woman. Hardly no hair at all, save what’s between his legs.”

“Prettier than those hags we got over there.” Another one remarked and Sanzo groaned. There were women on deck. This was entirely unacceptable.

“Have a go at him, Jai.” Someone suggested of the sailor who had the interest in Sanzo’s skin. “Youkai won’t even notice your little human prick’s been up his chute.”

They all laughed at that, save for Jai, who scowled and pushed Sanzo away from him. Sanzo’s balance faltered and the noose tightened and he hung there choking until someone got an arm around his waist and set him back on his bound feet.

“Oda said no.” One of the others said. “We only gets to taste those headed for the mines or the fields. The brothel’s like to burst their own cherries.”

He snarled at that assessment, and went very still, not inviting any more rough handling than he was already getting. It was a waste of energy to fight them when he had no chance of doing anything but pissing them off. Wait for the moment when they freed his feet, which they would do, unless they planned to cart him to the ‘market’ ass over head across one of their shoulders.

When they finished with his ‘cleaning’ they did a half assed job of refastening his pants, didn’t bother with the shirt at all, then took the noose from around his neck and shoved him to the deck. He lay there, chin to the boards, soaked to the bone and shivering a little from cool early morning air, staring through the deck rail at the mist shrouded shapes of an approaching dock. The other captives stared with the same intensity, terrified at the fate they had been promised by the slavers. The lot of them were wet as well, having no doubt shared the same humiliating treatment as Sanzo.

The boat touched dock with a gentle bump and the crew scurried about tying her off, while Oda, who must have been the riverboat’s captain strolled down the plank to converse with Ruvan port officials come to collect their docking fees and levies. Eventually the captives were collected, ropes put around their necks and connected, making a train of them, so they could be led about docily like domesticated animals.

They came for Sanzo and he submitted to them turning him onto his back to work at the knot at his ankles. His feet were free and he got hauled up by his bound arms and shoved towards the line of tethered prisoners. The boat was so close to the dock that her hull bumped the wooden jetty with each swell of water.

He let them move him towards the gangplank and the end of the line of captives, let one of them actually get near him with the last section of tether, using the time to let the blood recirculate through half numb feet, then jammed a heel backwards into the instep of the man behind him a moment before swinging the same foot forward, directly into the balls of the man with the rope tether. There was an instant squeal of pain. Sanzo didn’t stay to hear the hind end of it, as the man crumpled, holding his genitals, but darted not towards the gangplank where there were crewmen aplenty to hinder his escape, but instead towards the rail leaping up and vaulting off the top of it towards the dock below. It was not that far of a drop. Six feet at most and he landed in a controlled roll, the momentum of which had him back on his feet and running into the shrouded gray of very early morning.

There was the echo of a shot, which hit very high on the sandstone side of a building he was passing. Crappy aim, but then again the idiots had probably had little experience firing a gun. His damned gun, no doubt. Son’s of bitches. He was so very much going to go back and make them wish they’d never laid eyes upon him.

He passed dock workers and river men on the street, all of which turned to stare at him, some of them making grabs for him when they realized he was bound and that a good many of their compatriots were hot on his heels. He avoided them neatly until he ran smack dab into the broad chest of an apparently immovable object and rebounded with enough force to knock him backwards onto the street.

He blinked, dazed for a heartbeat or two at the impact, finding himself boot level and staring at black leather boots and the hem of pale pants legs. His eyes moved further up and at the dangling curve of a length of long, dull chainlink attached to the thick iron manacle circling the immovable object’s wrist. Both wrists actually. Not that the chain actually inhibited movement – – or anything for that matter, just one more symbolic gesture on the fucking God’s part. If they’d had any sense they’d have strangled him with it instead of making him wear it as a penance. Morons.

“Son of a bitch. . . .” Sanzo swore, scrambling backwards, but not fast enough to keep Homura from bending down and hooking him by the waistband of his damp jeans and hauling him back, then crouching there with Sanzo between his legs on the street, one broad hand resting loosely on Sanzo’s throat, the chain heavy across his chest.

“Well, what have we here?” Homura smiled, his damned unnerving mismatched eyes glittering in the gray light. “A drenched cat. And all trussed up like someone was trying to drown you in the river, eh, Konzen?”

“Get the fuck off!” What Homura was doing here was anyone’s guess, though Sanzo thought that more than likely he was sniffing after the sutra. Convenient that he didn’t happen to have it on him, all things considered.

“Temper, Konzen.” Homura tsked at him, fingers tightened around his throat just a little. Fingers that could snap his neck without much effort if it suited him, for he was a deity of sorts, even if he was a censored one.

“That’s not – – – my fucking – – – name!”

Homura looked up as the slavers approached, the lot of them breathless and red faced, and emanating threat.

“That’s our property, there.” Captain Oda warned, Sanzo’s gun in his hand and backed by at least half a dozen of his men who held various bladed weapons and clubs. Oh, Sanzo wished they’d make a go at Homura. It would be worth having to deal with the bastard himself to see the river rats get shredded into small bits of crisped flesh.

“That’s my fucking gun.” Sanzo snarled, staring at them upside down from his position on the ground.

“So it is.” Homura agreed. “How negligent of you to let just anyone have it. So where are Goku and the other two? Negligent of them to let just anyone have you, eh Konzen?”

“Did you hear me?” Oda was getting itchy, and frustrated, fingers clenching and unclenching on the gun. “You’re sittin’ on our property.”

“Your property? And what do you intend to do with your property?” Homura seemed genuinely interested, but it was the sort of interest a lion held for a field mouse, allowing itself to be entertained by the antics until it got bored and swallowed it up. A youkai would have sensed the danger immediately and gave ground. Human’s were duller to the hints of power that went beyond obvious physical attributes.

“He’s for the slave market and the brothels after that.”

“The brothels?” Homura lifted a black brow and laughed. “Do you hear, Konzen, the brothels! What a fitting fate for one so pristine and arrogant. Would you ever have imagined yourself to be sullied so?”

Sanzo hissed and twisted under him, trying to knee him between the legs and not able to get quite the required angle.

“If he’s for the brothels, I’d be careful, he’s has a bit more fight than your average whore.”

Oda relaxed a little, sensing that Homura wasn’t about to snatch his prize away. “They have drugs that’ll take the fight out him, if that’s what it takes, but it won’t take long before they’re not needed. After enough youkai have been at him, there won’t be much fight left.”

“Interesting.” Homura rose, and pulled Sanzo effortlessly up with him, hand sliding around to the back of his neck. “They’re going to sell you at the slave market, Konzen. I think I’ll trail along, for that’s certainly a spectacle that will do my heart good to see.”

* * *

With Homura’s hands off him there was a chance at escape, men’s strength not being that of a supposed god’s. But Sanzo’s own betrayed him and he bucked and jerked in their grip to no avail. They had a very decent hold on him after that, one at each arm and another taking firm hold of the rope about his neck. He craned his head to see where Homura was, but their entry onto the main avenue beyond the docks and the crowds traversing it swallowed Sanzo’s sight of him.

The faces that swirled around him were less than wholly human. The glint of red eyes was predominant, the tapered length of overlong ears. Oh, there were humans among the youkai, certainly, rough and tumble men who did not fear walking among so many youkai.

Sanzo ceased his desperate attempts to shake off the men holding him, wary and rightfully so of a sudden. Dare he attribute luck to the circumstance that had left his priestly attire well behind him in this den of youkai? Even though none of the ones he passed close enough to have a good look at displayed the signs of madness that was overtaking so many of their ilk, word was still widespread in the youkai community about the Sanzo and his companions and their mission Westward. There were rewards aplenty to be gained from the presentation of his head to certain parties.

It didn’t mean they didn’t stare at him in disdain, or scoff at his predicament with laughter and crude remarks about the human fallen so low as to be dragged through the streets of their city on his way to a youkai market. It was enough to make Sanzo see red. It clouded his vision and colored his cheeks. Indignity upon indignity.

The market in question wasn’t far from the docks. There were all manner of goods for sale there, though upon passing, Sanzo noted that the fruits and vegetables were inferior to those sold at the human market upriver. The youkai got the bottom of the barrel then and from the faces of the buyers and the raucous complaints it was a commonplace neglect. The youkai craftsmen were no less competent than their human counterparts though, and the wares of the smithy, the potter, the woodmaker and the weaver were all of acceptable quality.

The slavers strode directly through the market, on the tail of their line of captives. The slave market was as busy as the other, youkai and human browsers both passing through ranks of crude pens where miserable soon to be sold humans and youkai huddled. The men and the women were separate, though the males outnumbered the females by a good number. Predictable since the main source of work for indentured labor were the mines and men inherently had stronger backs and longer lives working them. The women no doubt had shorter lives, if the work of the brothels had any impact upon them.

There was some sort of deal that took place between the riverboat captain and the dirty, barrel chested youkai that apparently ran the auction yard. Coin changed hands, but Sanzo couldn’t hear what agreement was made. The line of captives ahead of him were released from their rope tethers and the few women herded to an empty pen, while the men were divvied up between two more. Sanzo was yanked forward and shoved ignominiously in one of them. They didn’t bother to remove the rope about his neck or loosen the bonds about his wrists. The roof of the pen was low enough that even a man of moderate height had to crouch, and crouching with a noose hanging from one’s neck and one’s hands wrenched behind one’s back was just damned uncomfortable. Like the rest of the men in the cage, Sanzo had little choice but to sink down, knees touching the wooden bars of the pen, tether trailing outside the bars to be tread upon by the passing free men and youkai.

Now that he was left to his own devices, Sanzo began to worry at the rope around his wrists, twisting his hands this way and that in efforts to either loosen the loops or reach the knots. It proved frustratingly futile. They were very good at securing their captives.

“Its no use. No use. We’re done for. We’ll die in the mines.” The man beside him moaned, dirty face streaked with tears. “Might as well lay down and die now for all the mercy the youkai bastards will give us.”

The man in his misery and fear rocked to and fro, jostling Sanzo.

“Get off.” Sanzo hissed, more than a little flustered by the utter air of despair emanating from the men around him. From the men in all the pens. As if they’d all just ceased to even know how to fight against fate. If they had then they deserved what they got.

Someone stepped on the rope from his tether outside the cage, and with a jangle of chain stooped to pick it up. Sanzo glared up murderously at Homura. Homura pulled him forward against the bars and there wasn’t a goddamned thing he could do about it, other than spit in frustration and glare hatefully up into Homura’s mismatched eyes.

“I promise – – I swear on my life that I will see you dead.”

“Your life’s not worth much anymore, now is it? But then I suppose we’ll find out exactly how much once they’ve put you on the block, umm, Konzen?”

Sanzo hissed and struggled until the noose tightened and he had to press his face against the bars to keep from strangling.

“Oh, now is this the one?” A hulking collection of fetid flesh in the form of a waddling youkai stopped beside Homura, eyes glued with speculation upon Sanzo. The captain of the riverboat stood behind him.

“That it is. As pretty a piece as I’ve come upon in my score of years moving flesh along the river. The hair alone will draw the customers like bees to honey.”

“Bees make honey, you idiot.” Sanzo snarled. “Its pollen they go to.”

The river caption scowled. Homura chuckled, amused. He let go the rope and Sanzo drew back, glowering at the lot of them.

“Here’s my prediction. The person who buys me will meet a short end.”

“Get him on a regular regiment of the flower and he’ll be a docile enough little whore.”

“A waste.” Homura said more to himself than any of the rest of them.

The youkai blinked and looked up at Homura, as if just noticing him for the first time. He blinked again, seeing something the riverboat captain couldn’t, a youkai sixth sense to danger that humans just didn’t have, and blanching just a little.

“Part of his charm is that spirit. What high entertainment to take it away, a little bit at a time. Those with the backbone for it would pay more for that, don’t you think?”

The youkai bowed his head to Homura, willing to agree to anything he said, murmured a few words to the captain and waddled away. The captain eyed Homura warily, before giving Sanzo one last baleful glare and departing himself.

“So tell me, where did you say Goku was again?” Homura squatted, elbows on knees, chain pooling on the dirt between his feet. “And the sutra? Where is that?”

“Have you looked up your ass, moron? Check long and far.”

“Oh, Konzen, what a mouth you’ve developed. You used to have so much more decorum.”

Arguing the simple fact of his identity with a deranged god seemed a useless fight at the moment. Sanzo settled back onto his haunches and glared. Even through the creeping numbness his fingers were itching with pent up frustration. Or maybe it was nicotine addiction starting to well and truly kick in. For a cigarette he might have forgiven a great many things.

Homura rose as a troupe of youkai that obviously worked here came stomping down the aisle between cages. The humans inside them shrunk back, cowering. The ones in the pen with Sanzo did the same, whimpering and whispering prayers as the youkai stopped before their cage and unlocked the chain around the door.

“Out,” Gruff voices demanded and reached in to yank the living contents out when they did not comply quickly enough with the order. Someone latched hold of the rope around Sanzo’s neck and there was no graceful fighting the pull of heavy youkai muscle. He ducked through the low doorway and glared daggers at Homura in passing.

They were led to an open square where a great many gathered youkai and humans stood, watching the progression of human men and women across a low wooden platform. The auction block. A aging youkai and his two lumbering assistants showed the merchandise on the block to the crowd. There was a lot of dirty, terrified men there now. Maybe six of them, skinny and underfed, as if they’d been snatched from the very meanest of the slum streets to sold into a even more wretched state than they’d left. The bidding wasn’t spirited, jumping between a mere two interested parties, until finally the men were sold to a human with what seemed a permanently dust stained face. A mine owner, someone near Sanzo said. As if it were any surprise that these men were headed to a life of work underground, given the choices.

After they were led off the block, the brute with his meaty paw around Sanzo’s lead jerked him forward. Common sense said why fight it, he was at so drastic a disadvantage it was laughable to even try. But when anger and indignity were involved, Sanzo’s common sense was often overshadowed. He dug his heels in and dug an elbow into the slaver behind him, getting a satisfying grunt in response to his efforts. The rope around his neck was jerked so hard it almost snapped his neck. He spun forward and onto his knees, choking from the suddenly suffocatingly, tight noose. He was still seeing stars and struggling for breath when they jerked him up, hauling him forward with two of them clutching his upper arms. Dragged up the three steps to the platform and shoved ingloriously into the waiting arms of the two auction attendants, he hardly heard the jeering cries of the spectators over the ringing in his ears.

Not nearly so complacent as the previous occupants of the block, the attendants had to work to keep Sanzo in place, though twisting his bound wrists up between his shoulders proved an adequate enough method for stopping his attempts to lunge out of their grasp. With his shoulders threatening to pop from their sockets he had very little choice save stand there and glower out at the faces of the crowd below the auction block. The faces were predominately youkai, perhaps a quarter of them human. He didn’t see Homura in the mix, but he doubted the bastard had wondered far. He did spot the obese youkai that the riverboat captain had brought to the pens in the very front row, though.

“”Aren’t you the lucky ones today, to be here to bid on such a unique piece as this.” The old auctioneer waddled towards Sanzo and his attendants tightened their grip. “You don’t see hair like this very often.” The old man’s spidery fingers threaded through Sanzo’s hair and he jerked his head away with a snarl and a hissed curse, which didn’t deter the same fingers from catching his jaw and clamping hold with a grip surpassingly strong for such an old looking youkai. He tilted Sanzo’s face this way and that, more for the onlookers benefit than his own.

“And a face to match. Very fine bones. Very good skin. Pale like a woman kept out of the sun. Let’s see his teeth.”

The old man, despite his strength, almost lost a finger in that venture, but he only laughed as he snatched his hand back and commented to the crowd. “Good teeth, too, it seems. Young, strong. No mine fodder this. Let’s start the bidding at 10,000 yen.”

Which amount got an immediate bid from someone in the back and was quickly enough raised from another bidder. Sanzo seethed and stood there, spay legged in the painful grip of his captors, breath coming harsh and unsteady from the almost red tinged anger that had long since bubbled to the surface. He doubted he could have gotten a coherent sentence out he was so incensed.

The fat youkai that had come to his pen raised the bid by enough that his competitors were momentarily silenced, intimidated by the amount of money on the line.

“If he survives a month, he’ll make it back for you ten fold.” The auctioneer said, trying to egg on more bids. “Come on now, you’ve never seen as pretty a piece as him on this block and aren’t likely to again any time soon. Do you want all the customers to flock to master Vhan kai’s brothel instead of your own?”

“Lets see if the rest of him looks as good as his face.” Someone cried from the growing crowd. “For the price you want for him, we ought to see the whole of him.”

Which suggestion seemed to sit fine with the auctioneer and grated on Sanzo’s last shred of control like the edge of a serrated knife. The curses began to spew like he was trying to get a years worth in on one last breath, and he kicked and writhed despite the pressure on his arms, until one of the big youkai simply wrapped his meaty arm around Sanzo’s neck and lifted him up off his feet, forcing his head back, cutting off air and sight of the all too interested crowd. With long enough lack of proper air, the strength seemed to drain from his limbs and he went frustratingly limp, cognizant enough to realize what the old auctioneer was doing, but not up to protesting it. The last attached buttons were torn from their threads and the shirt pushed as far back over his shoulders as his bound arms would allow, baring the front of his body. The old man pulled jeans that had never been properly refastened since the first enormously embarrassing time they’d been undone on the riverboat, down and Sanzo felt his genitals shrink a little as unhindered breeze touched them.

God, this was not happening. Was just fucking not being done to him. There was no way his luck could have gone so sour so quickly without someone putting in a helping hand. He threw in a few curses directed at the gods in general for good measure, though they came out weak and whispery from lack of proper air. He barely heard the bidding resume, though he damn sure felt the imprint of their eyes upon him, the feel of the very slight erection of the youkai behind him poking into the back of his thigh. And Homura, bastard that he was, was out there somewhere enjoying each and every minute of it. The only thing lacking, would have been Goku, Gojyo and Hakkai happening upon the debacle to make Sanzo’s life complete.

Whatever the final bid was, Sanzo didn’t really hear. All that really mattered was that it ended and the pressure was let off his windpipe and he was lowered back to the ground, despite the fact that his legs were unsteady things under him. He was pulled towards the other side of the auction block and he went docilely enough, more than happy to be leaving it with nothing but the open tails of his shirt covering his modesty. He was delivered into the hands of a set of stone faced youkai, who waited with hands on Sanzo’s arms while the very fat youkai that had bought him settled with the auction accountant. Sanzo’s auction price paid for, the fat youkai turned to survey his purchase, small, glittering eyes traveling with a proprietary gleam up and down the length of Sanzo’s frame. There was no covering up, the damage had been done, so he stood there and endured it, meeting the youkai’s eyes with a cold, deadly promise in his own.

“Get him dressed.” The youkai brothel master turned his eyes away from Sanzo’s glare. “Don’t want to much of a spectacle on the way home. There will be enough of that later, eh?”

The best of Tinto town might be equated with the worst of her sister town upriver and the district that Sanzo found himself dragged into was a study of squalor. These youkai had not for the most part been inflicted with madness, but they lived like beasts nonetheless, the lowest of the low, reduced to pandering on the streets, begging for scraps from the humans and higher class youkai that drifted through the district looking for the sorts of entertainment that could not be so easily gotten in the better parts of town. There were games of chance advertised by boys crying the news on the side of the pitted street. Games that involved blood and battle between beasts or men or youkai. Drugs offered for sale on the street corners, or sold within the dubious comfort of dens where a person might go to find a sheltered corner to practice his oblivion within. The whores on the actual street varied in age and appearance, but all of them were scraggly and worn out, abused and hollow from the appetites of the clientele desperate enough to couple with any of them. What lay behind the walls of the brothels claimed to be of a higher quality, but one doubted the abuse was any less obvious and Sanzo began to seriously consider what sort of damage he could deal the thugs that were latched onto him that might effect his chances at escape. He was tired and sore and his hands had long since gone numb, but the thought of getting dragged into one of those dark brothels and locked into the stench of sex and blood and despair was beginning to egg on traces of panic that before now had been forced back by the simple fuel of rage.

“Master Vhan Kai,” One of the street hawkers outside a gaming den called to the fat man waddling down the side of the street in front of Sanzo and his guardians. “You got a new one, huh? Right pretty for a man. Be right tempting for even those that prefer genuine pussy, eh? Might come round and take a ride myself.”

“You couldn’t afford him, Ping.” Master Vhan Kai said over his shoulder and Ping shouted back good naturedly.

“Not now. In a month or two the price will go down. It always does.” The motley collection of ruffians around Ping laughed.

Sanzo glared over his shoulder, fixing them all in his memory, and in the process missed the step leading up to the porch of the building Vhan Kai’s muscle led him to. He stumped his toe on the step and cursed, then cursed more when the two youkai at his arms didn’t allow him time to recover, half dragging, half lifting him up the steps instead. Across the porch was a door painted red with the legend, ‘master Vhan Kai’s house of pleasure” painted across the top of it.

Wonderful. Once inside the smell of cheap perfume and incense was like a slap in the face. The front room was probably like the front room of any one of a hundred similar brothels, a victim of poor taste and gaudy decoration. There were upholstered benches and overstuffed couches where patrons might wait while a room upstairs was readied, or could browse the wares of the whores that loitered in the front room. There were a half dozen painted floozies in attendance, ranging from a youkai boy that could not have been more than twelve or thirteen to a human woman of middle to late years. A handful of other painted women, some youkai, some human and an older boy made up the greeting committee. All of them gave Vhan Kai signs of respect before turning curious, and in some cases openly hostile eyes upon his new find.

Ah, competition among whores. How charming. Sanzo ignored them, instead scanning the room for windows and exits. There were stairs leading up and a curtained hall leading to the back of the building and probably a back door.

“Boy!” Vhan Kai snapped and the youngest boy flinched and scurried over, shoulders haunched, eyes downcast “Go upstairs and make sure the blue room is ready for a new occupant.

The boy scampered to do his master’s bidding, and soon after the two youkai wrestled Sanzo up the stairs and down a creaky hall towards a room at the end. Sanzo gave up the fight halfway down the hall, some bit of craftiness managing to overcome the indignation, figuring that they’d hardly just thrust him in and leave him bound. They have to untie him eventually and do so less guarded if he behaved himself before hand. Once inside the room, the youkai unhanded him, wary for the retaliation he’d already proved himself capable of. When he didn’t give it, they relaxed marginally. He could see it in their red eyes, the relief at his good behavior. That they might not have to damage something their master had paid such good money for. That chore would be left up to the paying customers.

The room was a box. A good sized bed of decent construction, a sturdy wardrobe bolted fast to the wall. A threadbare rug that would take some of the chill off the floor during winter, a small, cold stove. A washbasin on a shelve with a picture of water. A bucket on the floor beside it for sanitary purposes. A shuttered window that the boy had opened to reveal a latticework of bars. All the comforts of home. If he had to stay in it one second longer than it took to tear his way out, he’d loose his grip on reason.

Vhan Kai waddled into the doorway, huffing a little from the climb to the second story. He motioned to his men and they approached Sanzo, removing the rope around his neck, loosening the bonds securing his hands. He stood there, the center of attention for a few breaths, rubbing feeling back into his hands, half listening as the fat brothel master began to speak, outlining the rules of his house. As if Sanzo planned to stay there and be the good whore.

As soon as he felt the tingle of sensation return to his fingers he made his move. Just stepped to the wash table and the picture that was within easy reach and dashed it around to slam into the head of the closest youkai guard. They weren’t expecting it of him, that was clear from the shock and momentary hesitation in the other one’s eyes. Sanzo didn’t give him a chance to recover his wits. He lunged forward with the shards of the handle still clutched in his fingers slashing at the youkai’s face with murderous intent. He scored a strike and another, spattering blood. The fat brothel master squealed in fright, backpedaling out into the hall, screaming for aid. The skinny little youkai boy stared with wide eyed shock at the spectacle, mouth wide, hands clutching one of the open shutters by the window. Sanzo was out the door, contemplating taking the time to do damage to Vhan Kai before escaping down the hall. The sound of feet thumping up the stairs made his decision. Since pursuit was coming up the stairs, his escape down them seemed doubtful. All the rooms couldn’t have barred windows, could they? He kicked in a door and a woman cried out in protest. The youkai male she was servicing pulled his member out of her mouth, hastily stuffing it into his trousers as Sanzo barreled by, tearing the shutters open and finding the same bars that graced the window of the Blue room. He cursed, staring about for a weapon. The youkai client had none on his person. The female whore certainly had nothing potentially dangerous. He made for the door just as the pursuit coming up the stairs reached it. Sanzo didn’t hesitate. To hesitate with youkai was to surely die. He slammed into them pummeling. Smashing a nose here, catching a youkai in the throat there. A knee to a groin, an elbow to a sternum. He didn’t usually brawl with youkai opponents without the benefit of his gun . . . or his companions. Their strength went beyond human strength. He hurt them, but he didn’t cripple them. They took it and lunged back, tangling feet with his legs and slamming him backwards to the floor. The thin carpet wasn’t enough to cushion the fall. His head hit hard and the impact of several heavy youkai bodies atop him seemed to drive him straight into the floorboards. A fist smashed into his side, again and he saw bright lights amidst the red wash of pain. A backhand slap to his face that might as well have been a clenched fist blow for the power behind it and even the spots ceased to be.

He came back to himself dragged between two of them, down the hall and back towards the room at the end. Vhan Kai was blathering almost incoherently, his fat face red and mottled with rage. Sanzo’s vision grayed out and clarified as his back hit the bed with considerable force and they were dragging his arms over his head, looping manacles though the metal bars of the headboard and tightening them around his wrists. His body throbbed, his side a red hot center of hurt. A broken rib maybe. His head still spun from the youkai’s slap. There were five of them crowding the room now, not including master Vhan Kai’s considerable self or the boy who cowered still in the far corner. The one Sanzo had taken out first was being helped by his comrades, wobbling and dazed still. The second one was glaring balefully at Sanzo, his face a mask of blood. There was something in his small red eyes that promised payback.

“He’s fucking feral.” That one snarled, and master Vhan Kai waved a hand to shut him up.

“That can be remedied.” He waddled forward and Sanzo saw the well worn, glass and metal tube of a syringe. It was half filled with some clear fluid. He thrashed despite the pain, desperate that it not be plunged into him, but one of the youkai leaned across his thighs, pinning his body and the brothel master forced his head back and drove the needle into the big vein of his neck.

Everything altered then and quickly. The pain dulled, the hands on his body became less obtrusive. The room less stifling, the situation by far less desperate. The mattress was an insubstantial thing under him, his body gone suddenly light and transparent. He hardly cared when they unfastened his hands and pulled him up to get the shirt off. Didn’t mind when his wrists were resecured again, or when they took his shoes and stripped the jeans off him afterwards. The air was pleasant enough not to cause discomfort.

When the fat brothel master lowered himself to the side of the bed, it dipped under his weight and Sanzo rolled just a little towards him, but not much, held fast as he was by the manacles. Perhaps some small bit of distress ate through the cloud of oblivion he was presently floating in when the fat man laid hands to him, but it was distant and not nearly so pervasive as the nirvana he was presently in the thrall of. But soon enough the man hefted his bulk off the bed and shooed the remaining youkai out of the room, following himself and shutting the door with the distinct sound of a key turning in a lock.

Sanzo shut his eyes and drifted.


Gojyo was drunker than he had been for quite a long while. Staggeringly drunk. Gloriously, numbly, would wake up with the hangover to end all hangovers tomorrow drunk. He had worked his way through more sleazy taverns than he could easily recall and drank more watered down liquor than a sane man might consider consuming and all it seemed for nothing. He found not hide nor blonde hair of the damned traitorous monk. Not a trace of him. Oh, he’d come upon people here and there that recognized the description, the monk having the tendency to stand out in most crowds, but no one had seen him that night.

In his utter inebriation he began to imagine dread scenarios. Bodies floating bloated and fetid face down in the river. Bodies discarded in alleyways for the rats to feed upon. Bodies bloodless with throats slit, rotting away in shallow graves outside the city, robbed and discarded. He was supposed to be angry. Rightly and justly pissed off. He had to keep telling himself that. Oh, not that he wasn’t, it was just that being drunk had his defenses down and concern began to worm its way in with the anger. Concern for a high and mighty monk who didn’t welcome it and would only scoff and make some sarcastic remark if it were offered. Had in fact made many a hurtful observation upon past concerns offered. So why should a man go to the trouble of caring now? He was only looking for the damned monk to kick his skinny ass, anyway.

Gojyo came to the conclusion, leaning on the worn, splintery counter of the last of a long line of cheap taverns, that he regretted ever screwing Sanzo. It just wasn’t worth it. No amount of momentary bliss could be worth the bullshit a body had to tolerate the other 99 percent of the time. If he hadn’t ever lain with the monk then he wouldn’t be feeling the concern now, he was almost certain. He’d be able to do the reasonable thing and turn his back on the whole thing, which was what Sanzo wanted in the first place and urge his other friends – – his real friends – – to do the same and turn around and head back down the long road to more familiar lands. But of course, once you’d fucked a person, things got complicated. When you slept with somebody, skin to skin, listened to the sound of their soft, even breathing, watched the tension and the stress of wakefulness diminish from their face as slumber took over . . . well, no matter what good sense said, you felt responsibility even if it wasn’t justified. Well, at least he did. God knew what the monk felt.

Damn if he didn’t regret sleeping with the monk, because maybe then he wouldn’t be sporting the edge of a boner from dwelling too long on him. He took a breath and forcefully thought about maggot-ridden corpses again and predictably the rebellious party in his pants dissipated.

He hoped Hakkai had been able to reel Goku back in from his almost hysterical search efforts for the monk. The kid didn’t hold grudges nearly as long as a reasonable person ought to. The kid was still limping from the bullet Sanzo had put in his leg. Hell, he’d probably have forgiven him while he was still bleeding in the street if Sanzo had changed his mind and stalking back and decided to pretend it hadn’t happened. Damned if Gojyo would.

He pushed away from the bar, sullen and tired and wanting nothing so much as his bed. He was almost certain he could find his way back to the inn from the dockside, his present inebriated state not withstanding. It would terribly embarrassing if Hakkai had to come out looking for him.

Just outside the door in the humid, foul smelling air of the dockside, someone put a hand on his arm. His accoster must have followed him from the bar, for he’d hardly gotten a step beyond the stoop before he was detained. It was a stupid move. He wasn’t in the best of moods and his frustration level had already passed into the red. He growled and spun, smacking the arm away as he did, clamping a hand around the neck of the fool who’d put hands on him and slamming the body back against the wall of the bar in one smooth move. Even drunk beyond good sense, Gojyo’s reflexes never betrayed him. His assailant proved to be rather less than intimidating.

A woman. A scrawny, pregnant woman, with lank, brown hair and sharp, sunken eyes, which were widened in fear at the moment, what with him glowering in her face and pressing her back with no little force into the wall of the tavern.

Assaulting pregnant women was not a predilection of Gojyo’s, in fact he rather frowned on the notion. He released her warily, stepping back to clear the protrusion of her belly.

“Sorry . . . you surprised me.” He muttered, running a hand through his hair. The woman didn’t seem entirely shocked at such rough treatment, and once his hand was not around her throat with stifling pressure, she shook herself off and stared up at him warily.

“You the one that’s been askin’ ’round after a yellow haired fellow?”

Gojyo blinked, the drink having far more effect on his train of logic than it did on his reflexes of self-preservation. After all night asking to no avail, it was disorienting to have someone broach the subject when he’d decided he didn’t care anymore.

“Yeah, what of it?”

“I might know something about him . . . for a price.”

Ah, figured. He was surprised someone hadn’t tried to wrangle coin out of him sooner for fictional information. Gojyo snorted, holding out his arms for her to survey him in full. “Do I look like I have money to spare?”

She squinted her eyes at him, which did nothing for the appearance of her face. Not a pretty woman in the least, though from the looks of her she’d lead a tough life and that did little for a woman’s femininity. Even close to full term pregnancy, she looked like she was lean and hard and merciless. She’d just a likely put a knife in his back as talk to him, he decided.

“You been askin’ all ’round town, so I figure its worth something to you, knowin’ what happened to that fella.”

“It might have been. It isn’t anymore.” He took a step back, to distance himself a little from her before he turned his back on her to walk away.

“Pretty face like his, he won’t last long where they took him.”

Gojyo hesitated. “Who is they?”

She rubbed the bulge of her belly. “Got another mouth to feed on the way. Don’t give out information for free that’s likely to put me and mine in trouble if word gets out that it came from me.”

Gojyo really didn’t have much coin left. He’d spent what he’d had drinking the night away in his search for Sanzo. What little he did have left would have to go towards getting more, since the monk and his all important credit card were no longer an option. Get into a cash game somewhere and he could build his funds back up. Better yet, get Hakkai into a high stakes game and they would be set.

He had three lonely coins left. He fished them out of his pocket to show them to her. “Its all I’ve got. You can check my pockets if you like.” He gave her a half hearted leer, not particularly thrilled at the notion, but feeling that a bit of flirting might go a long way, even in the face of this gaunt, pregnant street rat. She looked at the coins, looked up at him, then shrugged and swept them off his hand, secreting them on her person faster than his eye could follow. She scurried forward then, catching hold of his arm and urging him away from the tavern stoop.

“A little distance between what I have to say and pryin’ ears.” She whispered. Gojyo allowed himself to be lead down the street, wary of lurking predators in the alley ways. Since she’d cleaned him out and he was almost certain she believed him when he claimed to have no more, he doubted she was leading him into an ambush.

“The scum who put the seed in my belly, well he comes round once and a while for a woman’s soft touch.”

Gojyo shuddered a little, wondering what other woman lived with this one, since the nails biting into his arm evidenced very little of a soft anything.

“And?”

“He and his deadbeat friends – – well they earn their living through the generosity of strangers.”

“They’re cutpurses.”

She snorted. “None of that lot are that nimble fingered. They go ’bout it a little more bluntly.”

Which meant they were simple thugs who waylaid passerby and stole all their belongings.

“He came whining to me last night ’bout the mark they’d almost had, yellow haired fellow. Nice clothes. Clean.”

That sounded entirely familiar. “I’m surprised your friend survived the meeting.” Sanzo wasn’t much for allowing himself to be robbed.

“They never got round to finishing up. The slavers come and chased them away and any with half a brain don’t mess with that lot.”

“Slavers?”

“Yep, they took him off, they did. Down river to Tinto town where all the beastmen live. Don’t none ever come back that the slavers take there. Either the mines kill them or the beastmen do for entertainment.”

“This happened last night?”

“It did.”

“And how long does it take to get to Tinto?”

“Eight hours by riverboat. He’s had a day there by this time. You might still have a bit of luck tracking him down. From the look of you, the beast men might be willing to spare a word or two,”

He narrowed his eyes, understanding that she’d picked up on what the color of his eyes and hair implied. Little surprise, living up river from a town full of youkai. He nodded at her.

“Thanks for the tip.”