They were quite a sight.
I came upon the pair of men as I moved through a back alley and found them behind a house.
They were images of misery with great squares of wood locked around their necks, and as I approached, they moved aside.
I paused a fair distance away and asked, “What the hell is this?”
“It keeps us from fleeing,” one of the men spoke, and I was surprised his words issued from his mouth.
He nodded, as did his companion. “Yes, we do not speak with our minds. Only our mouths.”
“You can both speak?” I asked.
“No,” the man stated. “Well, we could. Zhao, though, would not stop speaking once they captured us. So, they took his tongue and ate it in front of him.”
Zhao looked down as he settled into a seated position on the ground.
“That a fact?” I asked.
“Why are you locked up like this?”
The man answered, “Because we speak with our mouths. We are chattel. Nothing more.”
“They’re going to eat you?” I asked.
The men nodded again.
“These,” the man said, tapping the wood around his neck, “mark us for what we are. If we try to run, our deaths will be slow. If we accept our fate, we will die quickly.”
“You don’t have to die at all,” I remarked.
The man frowned. “No one will help us.”
“I’m not from around here,” I stated, “and I don’t give a damned what is or isn’t acceptable.”
I stepped forward, crouched down and looked at the lock on the back of the wood around Zhao’s neck. Nodding, I drew a Colt and said, “Cover your ears.”
Both men did so, and I pulled the trigger. The iron lock shattered and sprang open. As Zhao cast aside the wood, I stood up and freed the other man.
After a moment, they stood before me.
“I am Liu,” the man told me, and they both bowed. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m on my way to kill Gao just as soon as I find him,” I replied.
Liu smiled. “We can lead you, though the way will be difficult.”
“It always is.”
Liu led, and Zhao and I followed.