Disclaimer: Saiunkouku doesn't belong to me... I wish it did.
Chapter 1 - Inquires
She wasn't stealing the money, she was putting it back.
Shuurei didn't dare breath as she parted the folds of the silver haired man's clothing, trying to slip the money purse back where it had hung at his waist just moments ago.
Thankfully the man's attention was still on the auction taking place in the centre of the busy marketplace. Countless conversations filled the square, voices overlapping and blending with one another until the air vibrated with restless energy. People were pressed up against each other, pushing and shoving to get a better look at the merchandise… Shuurei glanced up towards the auction block in time to see a scared looking girl get sold off to one of the local farmers.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Kourin shifting anxiously back and forth, trying not to be too obvious as she watched Shuurei's progress. Eigetsu stood next to Kourin, his head hanging in shame, looking up from time to time while keeping his ears alert for the angry shouts of discovery. He knew he was going to be getting much more than a well-aimed flying teapot from Kourin this time. It was a good thing there was a limit to how much Kourin could lift. The odds of survival looked to be in his favour. He sighed, wanting to grip his head due to the headache that threatened to split his skull apart.
Shuurei was just securing the money pouch at the man's hip when a hand suddenly clamped down on hers.
In her shock, Shuurei forgot to breath. Her eyes widened even further as she looked up and saw the piercing blue-green eyes that glared straight down at her. The owner of the pouch looked ready to kill.
"I-I was just putting it back," Shuurei got the words out from between suddenly dry lips. She tried swallowing only to find that her entire mouth felt as dry as sandpaper.
The man`s eyes narrowed even further, yet he didn't say a word.
Those unblinking eyes held her like the strong hand that shackled her captured wrist. Not looking away from his face, Shuurei tried unsuccessfully to tug her hand free.
"What have we here?"
Another man walked up to them. An X shaped scar could be seen going down his left cheek. His green-black hair nearly blended with the green bandana that he wore around his head. The man smiled at Shuurei, not bothered in the slightest by the terrified look that she gave him in return. "Caught a thief?"
"She was rifling through my clothes, what else would she be if not a thief?" the man holding her captive replied sarcastically.
"Well, my friend, she appears to be rather desperate looking. Perhaps she has set her heart on you... or your body." The green haired man added that last part almost as an afterthought.
"Ensei, I swear I'm going to kill you some day," the silver haired man growled, ignoring Ensei`s grin, and yanked Shuurei's hand up. Upon seeing that it was empty he shot her a warning look.
"Don't let me catch you near me again," he said, letting go of her hand and turning away as he strode toward the front where the auction was being held.
"I think he likes you, don't give up." Ensei winked at Shuurei and melted into the crowd of people who were pushing closer to get a better look at the wares that were up for auction.
Shuurei stood rooted to the spot trying to relearn how to breath.
Kourin ran over to her. "Shuurei, are you alright?" She took Shuri's larger hands in her small ones, desperately wanting to offer comfort but not quite sure of how to go about it.
"Yes, Kourin, I'm fine. Don't worry about me." Shuurei patted the younger girl's shoulder in reassurance.
"I was sure that silver haired one was going to hit you. He looked very angry," Kourin continued, as if Shuurei had not spoken. "I would expect no less from a pair of pirates. Did you see those swords they had strapped at their sides?" Kourin`s face held a mixture of both fear and fascination.
"Kourin, many people wear swords," Shuurei pointed out reasonably as she took her shopping from the girl. "Not just pirates. Now come on and let`s get back to the orphanage, I`m sure everyone is wondering where you two ran off to."
* * *
"We are looking for someone who was supposedly put up for auction early this morning." Seiran repeated for the fourth time that night. He tried not to appear too impatient while the owner of the inn sat back with his face scrunched up in thought. This was their third inn, and like the previous two, it appeared that the innkeeper had no information on the one person that Seiran was determined to find.
"It was a young man with long, pale hair and amber eyes." If anything could jog the drunkard`s memory, the unique appearance of the man in question would.
A spark of recognition lit up the innkeeper's bleary eyes. "Ah, yes... A pretty looking fella, would have had problems believing he was a man if not for his... state of undress. He snickered to himself, in appreciation of his own joke.
He didn`t realize that his life hung precariously in the balance as Ensei attempted to hold Seiran back, trapping his friend`s sword arm in secure hold and twisting it behind his back. This maneuver was made all the more impressive as he managed to keep the struggle hidden from their present company.
"Do you know who was selling him, or the name of the ship they were sailing?" Ensei asked the innkeeper, ignoring the anger emanating from Seiran, as well as the tension that ran throughout the entire arm that Ensei held imobile. Seiran was in no shape to be asking these questions, Ensei admitted to himself. The intensity of his silver haired friend's emotions on this matter made him unpredictable and aggressive... hell, that was a standard for Seiran, at least whenever he was with Ensei. However, these days it was even harder to keep him under control.
"Don't know. They didn't manage to find a buyer here. The kind of money they were asking for isn`t what the folks here can afford. Those slavers would have better luck selling him to a whore house, at least there appearance counts for something. Ask anyone in this here town, we are too busy working the skin off our hands just to get by. What would anyone do with a pretty slave, especially one who looked like he's never worked a single day in his life?"
"Thanks for the information." Ensei said sliding a few coins across the counter, which the innkeeper greedily scooped up. Ensei let go of his seething silver haired companion once they exited the inn. "Where to now?" he asked, a mischievous glint in his eyes. The death glare he received in response made him laugh out loud.
* * *
"Thank you for coming over on such short notice, Shuurei, we couldn`t have finished all those calculations without you."
Shuurei smiled up at the beautiful owner of the establishment. "It was my pleasure, please feel free to let me know if you need me to help again. I always look forward to any new projects that I can help with.
"Would this have something to do with your missing father?" Koucho asked, a flicker of something that could have been worry passed through her eyes.
"You know me too well. Yes, I`m still determined to find him. I`ve been asking around, and though there`s no definite information on his whereabouts, I`ve begun to think that it`s quite likely Father has decided to go back to our old home in Ko Province."
"Why would he do that?" Kochou asked, sounding puzzled.
"I don`t know, but I`ve decided that I`ll will go to our old residence in Ko Provice and see if I can track my father`s movements from there."
"You think he left by choice? "
Shuurei paused, as if in thought, "I don`t know why he went missing, but I would like to think that once I track him down, my father will explain everything to me."
"And how are you planning to get to Ko Province?" Kochou asked, raising a perfect eyebrow.
"That`s why I have been working so many odd jobs, I`ve managed to save almost enough money to secure passage on a ship heading that way. I`ve asked around in various inns, and according to some merchants they might allow me passage if I save up two more weeks` worth of money."
"Shuurei, don`t do anything reckless," Kochou cautioned, "Your father would never forgive me if something happened to you.".
"Don`t worry, I don`t plan on doing anything reckless," Shuurei replied with a reassuring smile. It was not often that you saw the owner of the most sought-after burlesque house looking worried. Although "worried" in Kochou`s case was what appeared to be a combination of anger and frustration.
"I know you too well, child, that`s why I worry about you. You never 'plan' to be reckless, it just happens." Kochou replied dryly.
"I`m always careful, there`s no need for you to worry so much."
"It doesn`t matter what you do, the situations you end up in would have driven a saint into an early grave." The exasperation in Kochou`s tone was obvious. Seeing Shuurei about to argue, Kochou raised a hand to forestall her. "Or do I need to remind you of what happened just last night?"
The younger girl`s shoulders slumped as Shuurei replied in a dejected tone of voice "No, no need." The memory of the night before still had not completely left her. She had never before feared for her life…
The night before…
It had been getting dark and Shuurei had just been closing her turnip stand, conveniently located near the docks. That way she had a clear view of who was arriving and she could make some more money while hoping for her father`s return. He was out there somewhere. Whether he had made it to one of the other provinces by now, or whether he was still sailing, she wasn`t sure.
All she knew was that her father had disappeared two months ago, boarding a merchant vessel and vanishing from her life without a word. The hurt that came from being utterly abandoned didn`t even come close to the anger that she now felt, two full months later. Oh, she would find her father, no matter what it took. And when she did, he was in for the worst tongue lashing of his life. There was no excuse for abandoning your family and making them worry about you night and day, wondering if you were alive or dead.
Shuurei started putting the last of her turnips into the small cart that she had brought with her. It barely reached her waist, but there weren`t that many turnips left to sell, so it didn`t really make much of a difference.
The slave auction had already closed for the night two hours ago, and the crowds had dispersed, flowing away like water. There was only one day left of the dreadful human auctions. Her parents had been set against the practice of slavery since before Shuurei had even been born. Using other people and treating them as objects… the callousness of it all turned her stomach. She was glad that her stand was far enough from the market square that she didn`t have to watch the sordid affair.
A few faint lanterns could be seen as they sparked to life. Luckily for Shuurei the moon was full, lighting the streets with a silver glow. She would have no problems getting home.
She was about to start out when she heard the sound of drunk voices approaching. Shuurei looked up from her cart and saw a group of men heading straight towards her. The one in the front had a messy dark beard. His mean looking eyes narrowed as he spotted her, breaking into a wide grin that was visibly missing some teeth.
"Why hello there girl, want to join us? You look like you could use a party." By now the scruffy-looking group stood before her. Shuurei could count seven men standing in her way, grinning at her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. Hoping that by ignoring them she could dissuade their attention, she continued to pull her cart behind her and tried making her way around them. As soon as they saw her trying to pass them, the men -who she now recognized as a groups of slavers who had come to participate in the auction- moved to block her path.
"Where are you going? Aren`t you the turnip girl who has been asking for passage out of Sa Province?" The one with the missing teeth, who obviously acted as a captain or leader of sorts, made a quick gesture with his hand and before she knew what was going on, Shuurei found two of the slavers had grabbed her upper arms.
"Let me go, I`m not going anywhere with you!" Shuurei yelled as she let go of her cart and tried to pry their hands off.
"We insist on helping you with your problem. We`ll take ya far away from Sa Province. Just like ya wanted. Why, we`re so generous that we won`t even charge ya." The rest of the crew laughed at their leader`s joke, while Shuurei continued struggling against her captors` hold. Determined to at least slow them down, Shuurei collapsed her knees, forcing the two slavers who were pulling her to take her entire body weight. For a split second she thought it would work. Her body slumped to the ground, and although her upper arms felt like they had been wrenched out of their sockets, the two slavers had stopped moving and looked down at her with annoyance.
"Hurry up and bring her, you idiots. I don`t care how you do it, but it shouldn`t be too hard. She`s just a girl". With that parting remark, the leader and the other four slavers made their way towards the only ship that showed any signs of activity. Shuurei strained her neck as she looked back to make sure that they were at least a few meters away before she decided to act.
Just as the man on her left released her arm to lean down to pick her up off the ground, she jerked her now freed hand away from him and pulled herself up to stand next to the other slaver, who still held her upper arm. Faster than she could react, the second slaver`s free hand clapped over onto her mouth as he tried to twist her right arm behind her back.
As if I would be dumb enough to scream and warn your friends, Shuurei thought as she twisted her head so that his grip on her mouth slipped a bit. The next thing he felt was a set of perfect teeth clamping down on his hand.
"Christ!" Jerking the hand away from her face, her captor stared at the bloody tooth marks that were clearly visible even in the moonlit night. "She bit me!" He yelled to his companion, and that was all he managed to get out before he doubled over in pain. Shuurei pulled back her elbow from where she had struck him in the gut and tried to make a break for it.
By now however, the second slaver who had been busy laughing at his companion`s plight, grabbed Shuurei`s arm and yanked her towards him.
She didn`t resist. Instead she drew back her small fist and slammed it straight into his surprised looking face. Screaming in pain, the second slaver let go of her, his hands going to his face. "You stupid little bitch!" He cried, enraged.
But Shuurei wasn`t the kind of person who wasted an opportunity. She was already running away from the docks towards the centre of town as fast as her uncomfortable shoes would let her. Her chance of escape lay in finding a place to hide, or even better, a place with people who knew her. These slavers wouldn`t try anything in a crowded place with lots of witnesses, would they?
She could hear many footsteps chasing after her, voices ringing out with curses and nasty promises.
Why were they being so persistent? Were they worrying about the trouble they`d be in if she reported them to the authorities?
The shoes were rubbing her feet raw. She had never dreamed of running in the wooden clogs, but Shuurei was not about to take her chances with the possibility of sharp rocks and god knew what else.
There, just a few more meters... Ignoring the threats close behind her, Shuurei focused all her energy on running.
Gasping in pain, Shuurei threw herself at the wooden door and pounded it with her fists.
"Open up, let me in!" she yelled in desperation, praying that someone inside would hear.
Laughing triumphantly, the slavers grabbed Shuurei.
"You chose the wrong place to go for help," chuckled the slaver whose hand she had bitten as he twisted his hand in her hair, causing Shuurei to cry out in anger and pain.
Suddenly the door opened, bathing them all in lamp light that lit up the front hall of the building. Laughter and giggling floated from within, along with drunken shouts and bawdy comments. A few scantily dressed women could be seen entertaining the men who were just visible in the common room.
A pretty young woman, wearing a lot more makeup than was proper in polite society, stood in the doorway. The slavers' gazes were automatically drawn to her large bosom, which looked like it was about to spill out of her too tight dress.
"Shuurei?" asked the brunette, looking at the girl who was presently being restrained by three filthy-looking men, two holding her arms and one who looked like he was determined to rip all her hair out.
"Who is it, Mikano?" A voice called from beyond the entranceway.
"It`s Shuurei, and it looks like those slavers who came by here earlier are with her…" The brunette stepped aside as another person filled the doorway.
She had a commanding presence and a truly stunning face. The only thing marring that beauty was the scowl she wore.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded angrily, taking in Shuurei`s scared expression, her head was jerked back by the slaver whose fist was tangled in her dark hair.
"Not your concern. Close the door and mind your own business," The slaver who held Shuurei`s hair growled, giving the tall, beautiful woman who stood in the doorway a look that he was sure would intimidate her into submission.
The woman raised her eyebrow at the slaver`s order, and in a calm voice she replied "I don't think so. Release the girl if you wish to keep your miserable lives."
The slaver holding Shuurei`s hair turned red with anger. "I don`t listen to threats from whores. Get back to your customers or I'll ruin that pretty face of yours for good."
She laughed coldly, and with eyes devoid of emotion stared down at the slaver who had threatened her.
"Will you." With a tilt of her head in the direction of the slavers, four shadowy figures slipped out from the now widely opened door and surrounded the slavers. In less than three seconds Shuurei`s attackers were on the ground, sporting a variety of painful injuries.
Kochou surveyed the thugs that lay on the street in front of her establishment. "Shuurei, get inside. I'll finish up with these miserable curs. After that, I think we should have a little talk."
Shuurei was more than happy to leave the moaning slavers behind. She limped up the stairs past Kochou.
"Take off your shoes if they cause you pain. Mikano will help you to one of the guest rooms."
Shuurei nodded her thanks and leaned gratefully on Mikano`s arm, as she was led away into the house.
"Now then, I have a proposition for you. You can either crawl back to your ship now and sail away before I decide to take real offence to your behavior, or you can stay here a little longer, in which case I will dispose of you." She sounded more like a commander than the owner of a brothel.
"You can`t do anything to us! We'll report you, no one will take the side of a whore!"
"That`s where you`re wrong." Kochou smirked. "I happen to have strong connections with quite a few people in high authority. I`m sure people will overlook the mysterious disappearance of unsavory characters such as yourselves. You have three hours to set sail and get out of this Province. If you fail to leave by that time, you will permanently disappear. Do I make myself clear?" She signaled her men, and the four shadowy shapes slipped back into the building after her, slamming the door in their wake.
* * *
Shuurei smiled up at Kochou gratefully. "I don`t know what I would have done without your help, and I would not have been able to get away from them if your guards hadn't taught me those basic moves when I was a just a child."
Kochou looked at Shuurei wearily. "You were always getting into trouble with the kids on the streets. But keep in mind though that any man who has actual training in fighting won`t be taken in so easily. You were simply very lucky."
Shuurei nodded her understanding, she had indeed been lucky. Then she remembered something that had been bothering her earlier. "You never did tell me how you knew those slavers who tried to kidnap me."
Kochou shrugged. "There's not much to tell. They came to me a few hours earlier, just as the auction was closing down. They tried to get me to buy a pretty male slave they had. I told them that I ran a female-only brothel, and that I had no need for a male slave."
"What did they do?"
"Nothing, what could they do? They left."
"Why do you think they went after me?" Shuurei asked puzzled.
"They are slavers. They make money by selling people. I would think it rather obvious that a lone woman might attract their attention.
"But I'm a citizen!"
"So are most people who are sold into slavery. Take them far enough away from the area where they are known and they can no longer prove their identity. Who believes the word of a slave?"
Shuurei stared at Kochou in horror. She never imagined that losing one's freedom could be as easy as that. She had always taken her rights for granted, never realizing that a chance encounter could transform her from citizen to cargo.
* * *
"We've been looking all day, and aside from all those wanted posters that the Navy has been passing out, we haven't learned a damn thing," Seiran complained, clenching his fist in frustration.
Ensei grinned as they entered the burlesque house. "If gathering information from a building full of beautiful women doesn't cheer you up, then I don't know what will," he joked.
"You know how I feel about prostitutes, Ensei. It makes me wonder if you hadn't planned on coming here regardless of what information we had managed to gather at the inn," Seiran accused the green-haired man.
Hearing the bitterness that laced Seiran's voice, Ensei simply shrugged. Noting that Seiran was busy with his brooding and not venturing further into the main room, Ensei decided to sacrifice himself for the cause. And so he made his way straight for one of the women lounging around the room. He would do whatever was necessary in order to 'question' the girls - anything to help a friend, after all.
Seiran stood against one of the walls, trying to be invisible. The noise, laughter, bright lights and scent of alcohol in the air all awoke bad memories. Moving further into the shadows, Seiran made his way back toward the main hallway, passing the various doors that no doubt led to a private bedroom.
As he passed one of the doors that lined the hallway, he happened to hear something that froze him in his tracks.
"...knew those slavers that tried to kidnap me." The voice of the speaker sounded oddly familiar, however Seiran couldn't place it.
Then he heard another voice answer the first.
"There's not much to tell. They came to me a few hours earlier, just as the auction was closing down. They tried to encourage me to buy a pretty male slave they had. I told them that I ran a female-only brothel, and that I had no need for a male slave."
Pretty male slave? Finally, a clue! For the first time in his search he was filled with a sense of purpose so powerful that he almost couldn`t control it. Seiran wanted to barge through the door and demand answers. Then he and Ensei could quickly get back to the ship, and track down those slavers. Elation coursed through him; their search was finally coming to an end. Many slavers came to Kiyou for the auction every year, but most of them dealt in child and female slaves. The male slaves that were sold could rarely be described as "pretty."
Seiran was so engrossed in his racing thoughts that he missed the rest of the conversation, and was caught unprepared when the door suddenly opened to revealing a familiar pair of large brown eyes and two black ponytails.
"You!" Seiran exclaimed, shock freezing him momentarily in place.
The girl almost tripped over her own feet in surprise and grabbed onto the doorframe to catch her balance. "Why are you here? Have you been following me?" she demanded, incredulous.
"I have better things to do than follow petty thieves around." Seiran frowned down at her. "Why are you here?"
"I work here. And I told you before, I was not stealing your money!" Shuurei`s face turned red with anger. No one had ever accused her of being a thief. Her integrity was never questioned. Yes, the situation had been a bit misleading, but that was partially his fault for not noticing that his money was missing in the first place.
"You work here?" Seiran`s voice was disbelieving as he looked her up and down. "Somehow I find that hard to believe."
"She is our accountant." Kochou said serenely from behind Shuurei.
"Accountant?" If it was possible, Seiran sounded even more surprised. They actually trusted her with money? But there were more important things on his mind. "I couldn`t help overhearing your conversation, and I would like to ask you a few questions."
Shuurei looked at him suspiciously, but didn`t say anything.
"The slavers that you were talking about just now, do you know their names?" Seiran tried looking patient. It was a lot harder than one might think.
"You`re looking for them? What did they do?" Shuurei`s curiosity quickly made her forget her dislike of the silver-haired man. He gave her a pointed look and she grudgingly answered, "No, I don`t know their names."
"What about their ship?"
"I would recognize it if I saw it, but I have no idea what it`s called."
"Would you be willing to identify it for us?" Seiran`s voice sounded deceptively calm.
"I'm afraid that's not possible, the ship left last night." She was getting tired of this conversation. How could she leave without being overly rude? "I`m sorry Kochou, but I need to return home. Thank you for all your help. I`ll be back next week."
Kochou nodded her understanding and thanked Shuurei for her hard work. Wishing her a safe trip home, Kochou watched the young woman headed down the stairs.
Seiran waited impatiently for her to go before he turned to the beautiful brothel owner. "The slave that they were attempting to sell you, what did he look like?"
"Long pale hair, amber eyes, and a rather slender build," she replied offhandedly.
"Was that girl the only one who saw them?" Seiran asked, excitement seeping into his voice.
"No. But she's probably the only one who can identify them. I suggest you do not try taking the girl with you against your will. If I find that she has been abducted I will make sure that you and your crew are hunted down and executed."
Seiran paused where he stood, and his eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"A brothel owner," the dark haired woman replied calmly.
Another pause. "What group are you affiliated with?"
"You can strike a business proposition with her if you are determined to access her knowledge of the slave ship. Offer her money for her services and she will most likely agree."
Frustrated at having his questions ignored, Seiran considered pressing the matter. A quick look at her face told him to drop it. "Thanks for the information," he said instead.
Kochou nodded and made her way down the stairs, leaving him behind. But she wasn't important, he had to find the girl and see if she would be willing to strike a bargain. Seiran sighed. Somehow he felt like this was going to lead to trouble.
(A great thanks goes out to my wonderful beta grey_damaskena, who found the time to go through the first part of what was meant to be a "short" story.)
Here is the first chapter of my Saiunkoku fanfic called "The Search". Inspired by the March Madness Challenge, it turned out to be a much larger project than I had first planned.