Chapter 10: That Shapeshifter, Reminiscing
Yoka flew above the Nagasaki Kaido1a public road from Kokura to Nagasaki used by travellers to get around Kyūshū in her tengu2Japanese mythical demon with red skin, a long nose and large wings; renowned for their swordsmanship and powers over the wind form. Rin was tucked in her arms, peering down at the shocked travellers as she searched for Matsukura Aoko and his procession of palanquins.
They had almost reached Nagasaki but there was no still sign of their target.
Rin’s fingers dug so deeply into the nape of Yoka’s red neck that she drew blood. But the tengu didn’t seem to feel pain at all. It was smirking, taking pleasure in the frenzied shouts of the travellers running for cover at the sight of it.
‘Tch!’ The young mistress ground her teeth. ’Head to Shimabara. They’ve probably arrived by now. We’re too late.’
Yoka smirked. ‘Are you sure?’ The tengu shifted the small girl in its arms to a more comfortable position. ‘What if they’re still kidnapping children along the way?’
Rin let go of the tengu’s neck and examined her sticky red fingers. ‘Nothing we can do about it. Instead of finding them, it’s more likely that we’ll miss them altogether. Look for their base and wipe them out all at once.’
The tengu dipped its ugly red head, its smile widening. ‘Understood, Ojou-sama.’
Now that they knew the kidnapper was Matsukura Aoko, it was easy to figure out why he did it.
He was raising an army to take back his domain by force.
According to Tsuguru, these kidnappings have been happening for a few years already. So it was clear he was willing to wait.
The question was whether he was selling these children for money to afford an army or training them to fight for him.
‘You don’t think it’s him,’ Yoka spoke Rin’s thoughts out loud.
The young mistress sighed and wiped her hands on the lapels of the tengu’s shirt. ‘Why would he sell the children he took such pains to kidnap if his goal is to take back his domain? There are much faster ways to raise money to afford an army.’
She frowned at the blood and flesh caked in her nails that couldn’t be wiped off.
‘It’s more likely that he’s training them to fight for him.’ She began to dig the gunk out with the edge of Yoka’s kimono. ‘He’s not one of them.’
The tengu landed on Mt. Unzen near Shimabara Castle and morphed back into a plain-faced maid. She set the young mistress down on a rock and adjusted her clothes that had been ruffled by the wind.
‘Then why are you still looking for these children? You said they aren’t your responsibility.’
Ink-black eyes met soulless light-grey ones. Rin reached out a hand and tugged at a long strand of the maid’s hair. ’Indeed, I’m no longer concerned about them. But Yoka, he might know who they are.’
The shapeshifter smiled. ‘What makes you think so?’
Rin tilted her head slightly. ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know, shapeshifter. He never entered my domain, yet he received children from someone who did. Someone with a common face like yours.’
Yoka smiled. ‘Ojou-sama is observant.’
‘Tch!’ The young mistress scowled. ‘When were you going to tell me that monk was a friend of yours?’
‘We shapeshifters are solitary creatures who despise one another. I am certainly not friends with that one.’
‘I don’t care,’ Rin said. ‘It should have arrived at Shimabara ahead of Matsukura Aoko. It’s one of your kind—find it for me.’
Yoka’s light-grey eyes glowed with amusement. ‘I am not able to sense the presence of other shapeshifters.’
The young mistress snorted. ‘How useless.’
Yoka ignored this jab and gave Rin a patronising smile. ‘The sun is setting, Ojou-sama. Let’s find an inn for you to spend the night before it gets too dark.’
The two of them entered Shimabara City which was at the foot of the mountains.
Rin picked one of the shabbier inns at the outer district of the city to stay in instead of travelling further in to find a more comfortable place to rest.
It was more likely for Matsukura Aoko’s child army to be hidden in the mountains than inside a town patrolled by guards of the current daimyo.
They settled in one of the inn’s larger rooms for the night.
Yoka borrowed the inn’s kitchen to cook dinner for the young mistress and delivered a bowl of kitsune udon and a pot of osmanthus tea to the room.
Rin was staring out the window at the darkening sky when she came in with the tray.
‘Exactly how many of you are there?’ she asked.
The shapeshifter smirked. ‘Ojou-sama, does it matter now? We already have a blood oath.’
Ink-black eyes glared into soulless light-grey ones. ‘No, it doesn’t matter,’ Rin replied casually, picking up her chopsticks. ‘You were the one who appeared before me. I would have taken the hand of anyone who reached out to me.’
Yoka smiled. Her young mistress who hated showing weakness in front of anyone had unexpectedly bared a bit of her soul.
‘There are a total of 77 of us in this world,’ Yoka replied, her gaze unswerving. ‘But I am the most powerful. Ojou-sama doesn’t need to worry. The shapeshifter on Matsukura-san’s side is no match for me. You will get your revenge and I will get your soul just like our oath dictates.’
Rin took the cup and breathed in the warm osmanthus scent. ‘Mn.’
After dinner, there was a knock on the door and a voice announcing the delivery of extra candles for the night.
Yoka slid the door open to take the candles and came face to face with a pair of unusual grey eyes. A short servant girl smiled up at her with an unusually wide smile.
’It’s been a while, Soulshifter. Did you miss me?’
Yoka frowned slightly at the creature in front of her. It looked like an ordinary plain-faced servant girl carrying a handful of candles but its eyes were an unusual grey colour that glowed in the dark.
The maid sighed, ’So it’s you, Forty-Seven.’
The little girl grinned. ‘I heard the humans say that a tengu was sighted along the Nagasaki Kaido with a pretty little doll in its arms and knew it had to be you.’
Forty-Seven tilted its head and tried to peer behind Yoka into the room. ‘So? Where is the doll? Let me see what’s so special about this human that you would make a life-binding oath to rear her for her soul.’
It squeezed past Yoka nimbly without waiting for a reply and leaned up close to sniff at Rin.
The young mistress had begun to take off her outer kimono and was putting on a yukata laid out on the futon when the unexpected intruder burst into the room. She yelped in surprise and cursed, dark eyes flashing with anger.
She pushed the servant girl away and raised a hand to slap her across the face.
Forty-Seven ducked easily and exclaimed, ‘Uwah! She smells so good! How tasty~! Why haven’t you eaten her already?’
The servant girl whirled her way over to Yoka and clutched her arm familiarly. ‘She’s not your type at all. Soulshifter, why don’t you give her to me instead? Don’t waste your time nurturing her soul, hm?’
Yoka quickly pulled her arm from the shapeshifter’s grasp. ‘No way,’ she replied curtly and walked over to help Rin put on her yukata properly.
She noticed that Rin was still shaking from the encounter. Her ink-black eyes were full of rage and her hands were trembling. Yoka squeezed her soft, white hands to calm her down.
Rin glared at Yoka. ‘You said you couldn’t sense other shapeshifters, so what’s your friend doing here?’
Beside them, Forty-Seven began to make a scene, her grey eyes wet with emotion. ‘No one has ever called me a friend before…Soulshifter, you’re my favourite person in the world!’
Yoka cringed and said, ‘I refuse to be associated with you.’
Rin scowled and hid her clammy hands inside the sleeves of her yukata. ‘Yoka, I command you to kill this enemy.’
The expression on Yoka’s face turned solemn. ‘Are you sure, Ojou-sama? Don’t you want to ask it any questions first?’
Rin lifted her chin and smiled. ‘There’s no need for questions. I don’t care how it happened, I just want revenge.’
Forty-Seven had no idea what she was talking about. She frowned and jabbed a finger at Rin. ‘Don’t be so quick to kill people when you see them for the first time!’ she scolded.
Rin laughed as Yoka’s right arm morphed into a tiger’s limb. ‘This isn’t the first time. And you’re not a person, so there’s no problem.’
The maid lunged at the baffled servant girl.
Rin took a step back as Forty-Seven’s left arm also turned into a tiger’s limb and blocked Yoka’s killing blow.
This shapeshifter truly was much weaker than Yoka. Its servant girl form flew across the room and crashed into a cabinet. As it crawled out of the wreckage, it morphed from a battered little girl into a familiar-looking monk.
‘Hey, this is rude!’ the monk protested. ‘I didn’t agree to this duel!’
Yoka didn’t respond, flashing forward to strike once more. Forty-Seven was more prepared this time and managed to duck, raising a leg that turned into a horse’s hoof to kick the maid in the stomach.
‘Aren’t we friends?’ the monk asked with a smirk. ‘Why are you being so hostile?’
Yoka struck again, shredding the monk’s robes into ribbons. ‘I’m just following orders.’
Forty-Seven grinned, its lips stretching unnaturally across the entire width of the monk’s face. It ignored Yoka and turned to face Rin. ’Soulshifter’s Ojou-sama, did you know that shapeshifters can’t physically kill one another? God has made it impossible.’
Yoka’s claw plunged into the monk’s neck. Blood spurted out of the wound and soaked the tatami mats. Drops of the warm liquid splattered on Rin’s face.
Rin watched, stunned, as her maid pulled out her arm and the monk collapsed, only to morph back into the little plain-faced servant girl, unscathed, unhurt and whole.
The servant girl curled over, laughing so hard she had to hold her stomach because her sides hurt.
Ink-black eyes full of rage met calm light-grey ones. ‘Kill that monster…’ Rin said through gritted teeth. ‘I command you, shapeshifter, kill it! Kill it!’
‘You didn’t tell her that we shapeshifters can’t be killed? Or are you patronising her?’ The servant girl looked from Rin to Yoka and then burst out in a new round of laughter.
Yoka smiled at Rin. ‘Even if it’s impossible, because Ojou-sama has commanded me, I will do it.’
She raised her claw once more and tore the servant girl’s arm from her body.
Forty-Seven stumbled backwards and bumped into the wooden frame of the window. It rolled its eyes. ‘How romantic!’
Yoka lunged forward again. The servant girl fell out of the window and landed nimbly in the inner courtyard below. Yoka jumped after it, claw poised to attack.
Rin walked over to the window, her eyes glued on the two figures below. The servant girl turned into the monk once again and launched a counterattack on her maid.
‘Tch!’ Her fingers curled around the side of the window and dug into the wood.
She was watching the fight so closely that she didn’t see a hand reaching out from behind to cover her mouth with a foul-smelling cloth.
By the time her eyes widened in surprise, it was too late.