Chapter One

It had been, Hakkai reflected while maintaining his customary smile, quite a reasonable day up to that point. Gojyo and Goku had not been squabbling any more than usual, Sanzou had chosen to brood rather than to use gun and fan, the rain had held off, and the countryside had been pleasant rolling fields rather than arid desert, perilous cliffsides, icy tundra, or tornado-struck prairie.

He should really have known that it was too good to be true.

Gojyo had, of course, insisted that they investigate the whole situation when they ran across it. Or rather, ran into it. He was quite sure that this was pure altruism, and had nothing to do with the fact that they had encountered the young woman bathing naked to purify herself.

He shouldn't allow any temper to show. It would be impolite.

Of course he felt concerned. It would be inappropriate to think that the only reason that he felt concerned in such a case would be if the victim bore some resemblance to Kanan (don't let the mind go that way, don't follow that gentle sweet path down to where the cells are waiting and where she's waiting and the smell of blood hangs in the air) and thereby drew on his personal sympathy. Common ethics demanded that they do something about it. Even Sanzou had agreed. Eventually. After a bit of mapreading made it clear that there was no other town for several days and that they needed to stock up on food here anyhow and that if he didn't do something, the rest of them would. (It was useful being the one who read the map.)

Of course, since Gojyo had been the one who got them into this with his altruistic concern, it was only fair that he make himself useful . . .

As for the presumptive victim - well, he was far too polite to say what he really thought about her behaviour, which was why an impatient Sanzou had given him the job of explaining to her that being chosen as future food or breeding material for some sort of esoteric spider clan was not meant as a compliment on her looks, and that it would not be impolite for her to refuse the invitation to come up to their redoubt for "a discussion over dinner".

Really, it was nearly enough to make him lose his temper. "Sumimasen," he said politely to the blond and distinctly buxom maiden yet again. "I'm afraid you don't quite understand . . ."

---

Kougaiji looked down from his dragon at the fortress below, and sighed deeply. This was, if possible, even worse than being sent sutra-hunting. It was approximately as bad as having to go and find Lirin when she'd run off after the Sanzou-tachi. Continuing the tally of personal woes, he ended on a slightly better note by deciding that it compared positively with having the "Empress" demand that he call her "Mother".

He still wasn't happy, though.

A diplomatic mission in itself was tolerable. A diplomatic mission suggested by Ni Jieni must by definition have something wrong with it. A diplomatic mission where he wasn't allowed to bring along Doku - something about no men being allowed in the fortress and they were making an exception purely because he was who he was, son of the Emperor - and had to leave Yaone behind as well to keep an eye on Lirin, who had last been heard threatening to run away and find the sutras yet again - well, purely and simply, to borrow Doku's pungent vernacular, it stank on toast.

He sighed, and signalled the dragon to spiral in and make a graceful landing. The sooner this was done, the sooner he could leave.

---

Sanzou had always been adept at processing the important parts of speech going on around him. While he could bark, "Urusai!" and use his fan to shut down the babble at annoying moments, he was also quite able to recognize any really vital information that was being conveyed. Words such as Twenty thousand youkai on the horizon would be acted upon. Comments such as Gojyo declaring he was horny would be given suitable attention. Casual mention of How nice to see you, Yaone-san, would not go unnoticed. Even the implications of such remarks as What a splendid day, what could possibly go wrong? could be recognized and acted upon.

Thus, when Goku suggested a wig, he instantly picked up on the important point. Making a wig an integral part of the disguise would mean that any of them could do it. Well, any of them except the stupid monkey. Which meant that the others might actually think that he should do it.

His course of action was obvious. "Of course not," he snapped. "Gojyo can dye his hair."

Gojyo demonstrated his newly acquired nervous tic again. "I am not dyeing my fucking hair."

"Oh yes you are! The erokappa's going blonde!"

"I am not fucking dyeing my fucking hair. Which part of that didn't you understand?"

Sanzou tuned the discussion out again. Really, this was too tiresome. He was stuck having to take part in another half-baked attempt to rescue people who should perfectly well have been able to handle the matter themselves. Spider youkai? Hundreds of them? Even if it wasn't mere exaggeration (as he rather suspected it was) it was very annoying to be expected to break their journey yet again in order to investigate and resolve the matter. All things considered, he was glad that Gojyo was suffering. Pain should be shared. Especially if it was his pain.

---

Goku was twitching with excitement. This was much, much, much, much, much better than driving along in the jeep. They were going to be saving a helpless girl! And she was a good cook! And they had a really cunning plan to do it, with Gojyo sneaking in in disguise and opening the gate so that they could get in and stop this sacrifice thing happening again! (He couldn't understand why Sanzou had said, "Oh no, not again," in quite that tone of voice when they came up with the plan, but it probably wasn't very important.)

He'd have masqueraded as the girl himself if the others had let him. There could have been all sorts of wonderful fights! It was almost a pity that both Sanzou and Hakkai had agreed that Gojyo should do it.

On the other hand, at least he didn't have to wear a corset and dye his hair blonde.

---

Gojyo hated everyone. He hated the world. He hated the stupid blonde brainless cutie who in a moment of misguided and suicidal gallantry which he was never going to repeat, never, not even if she stripped naked again for him . . . all right, so the view had been good and he'd got carried away.

He was looking forward to expressing his feelings to some of those damn youkai.

The corset bit into his stomach and stopped him taking a decent breath. The frilly dress hung on him like a limp sack and got between his legs. The heels were nothing like as comfortable as his usual boots. And his hair smelt of chamomile from that shampoo the giggling cutie had donated. He should have known the colour wasn't natural.

He still couldn't work out why Hakkai hadn't agreed that Sanzou should wear the disguise instead of him. Hakkai usually agreed with him on this sort of thing, dammit.

Still, it should be simple enough. Get in. Decapitate guards or otherwise cut to pieces. Slay anyone who got in his way. Especially if they commented on his appearance. Open door for others. Cue general mayhem.

He stood in front of the fortress doors and knocked, a pitiful figure in long red-blonde hair and pink dress.

---

The two tall female youkai in black leather - at least, he hoped that it was black leather - escorted Kougaiji down the stairs to the main courtyard. They'd been exquisitely polite, presented their compliments to him, to his father, to his mother - his real mother rather than the "Empress", which improved his mood from total sullenness by a few notches - and were guiding him down to meet the local queen and dignitaries.

Across the courtyard, several other guards were opening the main doors to allow a slouching figure to enter. She looked pretty enough, if she bothered to stand up straight. Flowing strawberry-blonde hair that hung loose around her face, modestly lowered eyes, an Amazonian figure barely restrained by what had to be a corset under her pink dress, and high heels which she teetered on elegantly. Even though the guards (curiously tall, dark-eyed, and predatory-looking) overtopped her by a few inches, she had a certain raw presence.

"Who's that?" Kougaiji asked one of his escorts.

The two escorts exchanged slightly bored glances, then the one whom he'd questioned replied, "She's a local tribute, Prince. It's rather old-fashioned, but it seems to make the villagers feel happier to be able to contribute to our upkeep, so why disappoint the humans? Only women, of course - no men are permitted in here, saving your presence. We generally put them to work for a few years, unless they're . . . interesting." She eyed the woman thoughtfully. "This latest one does look more vigorous than usual."

Kougaiji thought of Yaone, and thought of all the other women who must have walked through the gates of this fortress before meeting some appalling end. His voice was calm, even bored, as he said, "Perhaps she could be assigned to me as a servant while I'm staying here?"

The second escort shrugged. "Of course, your highness."

---

Outside the fortress, Hakkai eventually said, "You know, I think something must have gone wrong?"

"Urusai," Sanzou muttered. "Now we have to rescue the dumbass."

"What were you talking to the villagers about, Hakkai?" Goku asked in between bites of meatball.

"Oh, nothing in particular. Just local legends." Hakkai smiled. "But apparently there is a back way through the kitchens where they take in the local produce. I would have told Gojyo about it, but he was having such fun . . ."

---

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