CHAPTER ONE Fateful Meeting

Sanzo sat in the inn's common room, reading the newspaper and drinking tea. It was the lazy time of day between the end of the lunch hour and the approach of early diners, people looking for games of cards or mah jong, and the heavy drinkers. The common room was mostly empty, which suited Sanzo perfectly. He needed all the peace and quiet he could get. Gojyo and Hakkai had taken Goku off to the marketplace to pick up supplies and find whatever passed for entertainment in this town. Sanzo sighed, took a long sip of tea, then turned the page. He was engrossed in an article about a trend among younger Buddhist monks who were lobbying for permission to smoke pipes or cigarettes. They accepted the need to restrict the privilege to certain times and limited amounts, but they were adamant about the importance of being allowed to indulge.

"Tch!" Sanzo snorted, thinking of Jikaku-sama and his own master. "Let 'em earn it!"

He was in the middle of lighting up his own cigarette when the sudden outburst of Gojyo's laughter outside made him fumble the lighter and drop it with a curse. Back so soon? Damn damn damn.

Goku came galloping in, golden eyes wide and both hands full of small things wrapped in twists of brightly colored paper.

"Sanzo! Sanzo! Look!" Goku dumped a handful of the little things in front of Sanzo. To judge from the lump in Goku's cheek, they were probably sweets of some kind. "Gojyo won really big playing cards and he gave me money to go buy these! Isn't that great?"

Sanzo frowned. Gojyo was notoriously generous with his winnings, but he must have really hit a jackpot to give some to Goku. Sanzo looked past Goku to Hakkai, who took his seat at the table smiling what looked to be a genuine smile. Hakuryuu sat on his shoulder, flinching a little at all the noise Goku kept making as he raced around chattering about all the things they'd seen in the marketplace. Sanzo was listening with only half an ear, but one phrase grabbed his attention.

"Goku, wait. What was that about people?"

Goku chattered on, oblivious.

"Goku!"

Still no reply. On Goku's next circuit of the room, Sanzo waited until the boy was within arm's reach. The paper fan flashed out, whacking Goku across the head three times in sharp succession. Goku skidded to a halt, holding his head.

"Hey! What'd I do? I didn't do anything!"

"Shut up, baka saru!" Sanzo snapped. "Tell me about the place where you saw the people being sold."

"Oh. That. I didn't see it, because Hakkai said we shouldn't go there, but I figure that must be where Layla came from."

"Who's Layla?"

"Gojyo's friend."

Sanzo turned a cold look on Hakkai. "What does the slave market have to do with Gojyo's 'friend'?"

Just then Gojyo himself walked it, smiling and jaunty in his usual white shirt, blue vest, and khaki pants. He had his arm slung round the shoulders of a girl who looked to be no more than eighteen. She had long dark hair plaited into a braid that hung down to her waist, fair skin, full lips, and a figure that looked generous beneath the plain green dress she wore. She kept her head down and her hands clasped in front of her. Gojyo was talking to her, his tone quieter and his gestures more restrained than usual. Now and then the girl replied with a nod and a brief smile. She looked to be a cut above the usual sort of trollop Gojyo amused himself with. For some reason that triggered Sanzo's internal alarm.

"Layla," Gojyo said, sweeping his arm toward Sanzo. "This is--"

The girl looked at Sanzo. For a moment she just stared at him, then her eyes widened in shock. She dropped to her knees, bowing her head. "Forgive me, Sanzo-sama, for disturbing you like this! I didn't know you yourself were here!"

Sanzo took off his reading glasses and looked down at the girl. No, his eyes hadn't been playing tricks. She was indeed trembling before him. He hadn't inspired this kind of reaction in anybody in a long time. And never in a girl so lovely and refined.

"Do you know me, girl?"

"No, Sanzo-sama. That is, I have never had the privilege of meeting you in person before. But anyone would know you!"

"What do you mean?"

"Hair that shines like sunlight, eyes the color of the finest wine, and the wrath of Heaven borne like a fire in the depths of your spirit..." She risked a timid glance up at him. "That could be only you, Sanzo-sama."

Sanzo didn't know what to make of all that. It was flattering, and that alone made him even more suspicious. The girl could be another undercover agent just like Yaone had been disguised as a waitress. Sanzo put his reading glasses back on and glared at Gojyo over the rims. "Since when do you bother to introduce your little playmates to me?"

"No, no," Gojyo said. "It's not like that!"

"Like hell. Don't even think about holding your latest orgy in a room the temple's paying for."

"Would you just shut up and listen for a minute? I won Layla in a card game!"

Sanzo's alarm blared even louder. "You did what?"

"One of the guys in the game bought her at the slave market. He told us the price he paid for her, then used that as his stake. He lost, and I won, so now she's mine."

"No." Sanzo took off his glasses, tucked them into their case, put them away inside his sleeve, and stood up. "In case you've forgotten, you pathetic erokappa, we're on a mission here. We leave tomorrow morning after breakfast. Hakuryuu only seats four. She's not coming with us!"

"Please, Gojyo!" Layla clung to his hand, looking like she might burst into tears. "Please don't anger Sanzo-sama any further!"

"Hey now." Gojyo knelt beside Layla and put his arms around her. "Don't let this noise bother you. We yell at each other all the time. It doesn't mean anything."

Layla leaned against his shoulder, then turned a sorrowful look on Sanzo. Now that he could get a closer look at her, Sanzo was struck by how pretty Layla really was. Her eyes were the blue-green of a quiet sea.

"I'm so sorry, Sanzo-sama." Her voice was low and rich, with the cultured tones of the educated. "A holy man like you should not have to suffer the presence of one like me. Gojyo only wanted to help me get away from the men who sold me in the first place."

Gojyo nodded. "I was thinking we could take her with us to the next town. That should be far enough away to keep the punks who sold her from finding her again."

That did make sense. Sanzo was relieved to know that Gojyo had no intention of keeping Layla.

"Hakkai," Sanzo said. "How far is the next town?"

"Four days," Hakkai replied.

"Tell me where she's supposed to sit, when the jeep only has four seats."

"That's easy," Gojyo said. "She can ride on my lap."

Layla flinched and ducked her head, but she couldn't hide the blush staining her cheeks.

"Four days also means camping out," Sanzo said. "Where is she going to sleep?"

"With me." Gojyo smiled that lazy, confident smile that made Sanzo want to shoot him.

Layla kept her head down so Sanzo couldn't read her expression. He could see her hands fisted in the cloth of her skirt, her grip tight enough to whiten her knuckles. The sight of that made Sanzo oddly pleased. Layla didn't want Gojyo. She was just putting up with him to escape slavery.

"You filthy youkai bastard." Sanzo shook his head. "The girl is dependent on your kindness and protection and all you can think about is bedding her the first chance you get!"

Gojyo straightened up to his full height, then stepped close to Sanzo, forcing the monk to look up at him.

"If that was true," Gojyo growled, "I could have just taken her straight up to my room. Instead, Hakkai and I took the time to make sure Layla got a bath and some new clothes before we presented her to you, Your Holiness." He shook his head, scowling. "That's the last time I try to be

civilized for your sake, you prick!"

Hakkai cleared his throat. "Perhaps we can continue this later. I'm sure a nice relaxing lunch will help put matters into perspective."

Layla eased up onto her feet. She clung to Gojyo's arm, but she raised her head and looked Sanzo in the eye. Something in those sea-blue eyes spoke to him. He couldn't name it, and that in itself made him want to chase it, to dive down into those eyes and meet what it was that called to him. Sanzo blew out his breath. Something was going on here, something that would probably turn out to mean more trouble, more delays, more side trips and even more reasons to shoot Gojyo.

"I swear. You two are suckers for every sob story we've heard between here and Chang'An."

Gojyo grinned. "So she goes with us?"

"All it means, baka, is that I'm already tired of arguing about it. Now that we're all here, let's get some lunch."

They arranged themselves around the table. Layla stood behind Gojyo's chair. Hakkai looked around.

"Hm. Doesn't seem to be much in the way of servers, does there?"

Layla spoke up. "Please, Sanzo-sama, if you will permit, I can tell the kitchen what you'd like to eat. I have some experience serving at table."

Sanzo stared at her. He wasn't used to being addressed with such respect. It was a pleasant change. He gave her a curt nod.

"Ask them what they're serving today," Goku said. "I want some of everything!"

Layla hurried off toward the door that led back to the kitchen. Gojyo watched her, grinning like the fiend that he was.

"Is she a knockout, or what?" He fired up his latest cigarette and blew smoke rings at the ceiling. "I tell you, they sold her cheap."

"Baka!" Sanzo snapped. "The only price structure you understand is by the hour or all night!"

Gojyo gave him a pitying glance. "Do you really think I've ever had to pay for it?" He took a long drag on his cigarette. "That's for losers," he blew the smoke out at Sanzo, "and ugly, going-bald monks."

The fan appeared in Sanzo's hand. Before he could raise it, Layla came hurrying back. She stopped a respectful distance from Sanzo and bowed.

"If you please, Sanzo-sama, the cook said he's got river fish, mutton, venison, and beef. He can cook it up as stew or steaks or whatever you like."

Goku bounced up and down in his seat. "I want fish and spring rolls and beef teriyaki and those glass noodles and lots of rice and--"

"Hush!" Sanzo commanded. He turned to Layla. "Tell him fast, simple, and plenty of it."

"What will you have to drink, Sanzo-sama?"

"Beer," Gojyo said. "And plenty of that, too!"

Sanzo nodded. "Tea for Hakkai. And Goku."

"Aw, Sanzo, why don't you ever let me drink beer like you guys do?"

"Because you're enough trouble sober. Kami-sama forbid I should ever have to cope with you drunk."

Layla disappeared into the kitchen again. Within minutes she came back out again, carrying a tray laden with two cans of Asahi beer and a teapot with a stack of cups. She served out the drinks, moving around the table in a circle that let her head straight back into the kitchen once she was done. Before she could dash off again, Gojyo caught her by the skirt and pulled her back to him.

"I wish we got service this good everywhere we go." He took her hand and brushed a kiss across her knuckles.

Layla's full lips curved in a genuine smile. She pulled her hand out of Gojyo's grasp, then ran it lightly over his crimson hair.

"The food will be ready soon," she said.

And so it was. The cook himself helped Layla bring out all the trays with the plates of food giving off aromatic steam. When the feast was arranged to everyone's satisfaction, Layla bowed to Sanzo.

"If you need anything, Sanzo-sama, please just call my name." She hurried away again.

"Layla!" Gojyo called. "Where are you going?"

"To the kitchen," she replied.

"Don't be silly. Come eat with us."

Layla blushed again, shaking her head. "Thank you, Gojyo, but that wouldn't be right."

"Why not?"

"Sanzo-sama is a holy man, and you are his companions. It's not right for a woman to sit at your table."

Gojyo looked at Sanzo. "Do you have a problem with Layla eating with us?"

Sanzo thought it over. As much as he really didn't want to watch Gojyo snuggle up to her while he was trying to eat, something about Layla was beginning to rouse certain feelings of pity in Sanzo.

"Layla."

"Yes, Sanzo-sama?"

"Take a seat beside Gojyo. Fate has made him your master now, so do as he says." Sanzo shot a scathing look at Gojyo. "Within reason, of course."

"As you wish, Sanzo-sama." Layla stayed where she was, prompting Sanzo to look at her. She regarded him with those haunting eyes. "Thank you, Sanzo-sama. You're very kind."

Gojyo laughed. "Yeah, he's a real prince." He fetched a chair from another table and parked it between his own chair and Hakkai's. "Come on, there's enough food for an army here." He cast a sour glance at Goku, who was already piling up empty plates at his usual astonishing rate. "And we're going to need it!"

For a quarter of an hour there wasn't much talk, just the sound of chopsticks clattering as the food was moved from serving platters to personal settings to mouths. Gojyo chose the bits and pieces he considered tastiest and set them before Layla. Sanzo observed this from under lowered eyelashes. Gojyo was always at his charming best in front of anything female and attractive, but instead of trying to coax Layla into the nearest bed, Gojyo seemed more interested in just taking care of her. Sanzo could see Hakkai had noticed the same thing. Instead of his usual smile, Hakkai wore a look of profound weariness. Sanzo wondered if the sight of Gojyo playing with his new toy pained Hakkai. Sanzo tried to ignore any hint of Hakkai and Gojyo being more than just roommates, but the sight of Hakkai showing his true feelings for once startled Sanzo into paying closer attention.

As before, Layla answered Gojyo's jokes with a nod and a shy smile. She ate in small bites, setting her chopsticks down between and then drinking tea from her cup with dainty grace. The more he saw of her, the more Sanzo thought the girl must come from good family. He studied her, musing on the possibilities. As if she felt his gaze on her, Layla looked straight at him and arched one slim dark brow.

"Layla." The stern tone of Sanzo's voice made Gojyo and Hakkai look at him. Goku just kept plowing through his food with his usual messy enthusiasm. "How did a girl with the table manners of a Lady end up in a slave market out here in the middle of nowhere?"

Layla turned pale and set her chopsticks aside with unnecessary precision. "It's not a pleasant story, Sanzo-sama. I wouldn't wish to disturb your meal with my sorrows."

"I haven't eaten a single meal in peace since I started traveling with these idiots." Sanzo drank a long swallow of beer, crushed the empty can in his fist and let it fall. "Tell me your story. If there's any trouble following you, I'll need to know what it might be."

Layla bowed her head in submission.

"One of my uncles died recently, leaving his estate to my father. We came to attend the funeral and to take possession of the estate." She took a deep, steadying breath, then spoke in a tone carefully empty of all emotion. "Our train of carriages was a week's journey from my uncle's lands when we were attacked by a large group of bandits. The guards and servants fought bravely, but they couldn't kill enough of the enemy fast enough to halt the inevitable."

"Bastards," Gojyo growled. "I wonder where we were when this was happening."

Sanzo stared at Layla, his purple eyes narrowing. "How did you manage to survive?"

"I convinced the bandits' leader that we were on the way to my wedding. My groom's family would pay handsomely for my safe return, but only as long as I was unharmed and, um--" She blushed a painful shade of red.

"Inviolate?" Hakkai suggested.

"Yes. Thank you, Hakkai."

"But that must not have worked," Sanzo said. "Or did your own relatives sell you into slavery?"

Layla's neutral expression sharpened to a glare. "No, Sanzo-sama, they did not. I never saw my family, except those whose bodies I had to leave behind unburied and unmourned."

"Hey, Sanzo." Gojyo put his arm around Layla's shoulders. "Back off, man. She's had it hard enough without you getting in her face."

Layla rested her head on Gojyo's shoulder, but her glare stayed just as fierce.

"I'm still waiting to hear how she ended up at the slave market." Sanzo looked into those sea-blue eyes and arched his own eyebrow. "Well?"

"The bandits kept arguing about how they were going to spend the ransom money until somebody had a bad attack of greed and the fighting broke out." Layla pushed back from the table and walked over to the nearest window. She leaned her head on the frame, one hand pressed to her mouth. "The survivors decided it was suicide to try to ransom me when they could make a quicker and safer profit at the slave market." She turned and looked Sanzo in the eye, making it somehow defiant. "Especially when the whorehouses would pay extra for a girl who had absolutely no experience."

Sanzo sat back and lit a cigarette. That explained why Gojyo wasn't putting his usual moves on Layla. Gojyo was stupid enough to believe such a story without any hard evidence to back it up. Whoever Layla really was, she was more than bright enough to make up a convincing story. As much as Sanzo detested Gojyo's and Goku's habit of picking up strays, at least this one knew how to behave herself properly in his presence. It might make the next four days a little less tedious to have a servant to wait on him. He got so damned tired of looking at the same three faces day after day, not counting Hakuryuu. If nothing else, Layla did improve the scenery.

"Gojyo."

"What?"

"She's your problem. Feed her, keep her clean, get her whatever she needs, and keep your hands off of her, at least in terms of using the temple's money to gratify your perverted appetites."

Gojyo scowled. His mouth opened, but Layla's hand on his shoulder stopped him. She moved around the table until she stood off to Sanzo's right side, then sank down onto her knees.

"Thank you, Sanzo-sama. You and Gojyo and Hakkai and Goku are the first people to show me any kindness here."

She bowed down until her forehead touched the ground. Gojyo's chair scraped back. He hurried around the table and bent to lift Layla back up onto her feet.

"Hey, hey, there's no need for that." He flashed a scornful look at Sanzo. "Keep that up and His Holiness will start expecting all of us to bow that low."

"You could learn a few things from Layla's good manners." Sanzo sipped from his cup of tea and made a face. "The tea's gone cold and we're out of beer."

Taking the hint, Layla rushed off toward the kitchen and returned with a steaming pot of tea and two fresh cans of Asahi. Sanzo cracked open his can and took a long drink.

"Can you cook?"

"A bit, Sanzo-sama. What did you have in mind?"

"Something like stew, cooked over an open fire while we're camping out between here and the next town."

"I'm sure I can come up with something palatable."

"Good. Go over the supply list with Hakkai and have him get you anything else you think you might need."

"Yes, Sanzo-sama."

"Hey!" Gojyo looked put out. "I thought you said I was supposed to take care of Layla."

Sanzo sighed. "You are, baka. Hakkai is a much better cook than you'll ever be, so when it comes to the food supplies, Layla should talk to him."

"Oh."

Layla wrapped her arms around Gojyo's waist and hugged him. "You're my hero, Gojyo, and you always will be."

Gojyo draped one long arm around her shoulders, beaming.