Chapter 21: That Shapeshifter, Stalking
From the vantage point of a golden eagle, the two assassins appeared to be inching along the ground like small worms, fleeing through the city in slow motion.
Yoka could see the shapes of similar shadowy figures waiting for the injured mercenaries at the edge of the city.
It would take them some time to get to their rendezvous point, so she decided to make a detour to Magistrate Haku’s residence first.
The young mistress had ordered her to get rid of the culprit behind the bakeneko rumours and remove the traitors at Lord Nabeshima’s side.
She learned the name of the culprit by meeting (and threatening) the gardener who raised the “bakeneko” cats that morning, but didn’t have the time to kill him yet.
It wasn’t difficult to find Ryūzōji Masamune’s manor in Saga City or to strangle him to death while he slept and make it look like a suicide.
She also killed his brother, who had also been appointed a magistrate and lived next door, before turning back into a golden eagle form to catch up with the assassins.
At the edge of the pine forest outside the city, the men who received the two assassins were stumped.
‘Why are you so badly injured?’
The assassin who dislocated his hand swore. ‘The target knew we were coming, so we ended up walking right into a trap.’
The other assassin quickly bandaged his bleeding shoulder with the help of two other mercenaries. ‘Your intel really didn’t reveal that someone figured out the meaning behind the “bakeneko” corpses?’
‘No,’ a bearded man replied. ‘There was only widespread panic and fear among the people about who would die next.’
‘Even the young daimyo of Karatsu who came here to sightsee stayed holed up in her inn and didn’t appear on the streets all day,’ a lanky, boyish-looking lad added.
The two assassins exchanged solemn glances. ‘Our target was supposed to be that person,’ the bandaged assassin said gravely. ‘Terazawa Rin, the young daimyo of Karatsu.’
A stunned silence lapsed.
The leader of the group, who had remained silent all this while, spoke up at last, ‘Get our informants out of the city. We must retreat before we are discovered.’
Everyone responded in unison, ‘Understood!’
The mercenary group melted into the shadow of the pine trees and made camp deep inside the forest for the night. Yoka flew after them, keeping an eye on their every move from above.
She toyed with the idea of eliminating the informants who would come out of the city the next day but the young mistress might throw a tantrum if she ended their lives too simply and they happened to have played a part in her clan’s massacre.
It was amusing to think that a powerful shapeshifter—an ageless creature that had been around since the creation of the world—was fearful of a little human girl’s temper tantrum.
The other shapeshifters wouldn’t believe it.
Yoka was also known as Soulshifter, the most powerful of the 77 shapeshifters in the world, notorious in the underworld for her ruthlessness.
She was the closest the yokai1supernatural creatures, like demons and spirits had to a king, but only because no one dared to oppose her or get in her way.
Like all humans, Rin was extremely weak in Soulshifter’s eyes.
She could only offer her soul in exchange for the death of her enemies, a trade that would have baffled any yokai. There’s no sense in killing anyone if you wouldn’t be alive to enjoy the victory afterwards.
Yet Rin didn’t hesitate at all to make such an unfair trade and even sealed it with a blood oath that couldn’t be revoked.
Ironically, it was this same irrevocable oath that gave the weak human girl the arrogance (and ability) to taunt, belittle and order the world’s most powerful yokai around like a slave.
Thus, there was nothing Soulshifter could do but resign herself to being Yoka, a lowly maidservant at the beck and call of a temperamental young mistress, for the time being.
Yoka observed the mercenary group for a night and a day, learning their names, habits and roles, as she followed them back to their base.
The two assassins she fought with were junior assassins typically sent out to complete simpler assassination missions. The one whose hand she broke was called Shadow-san, and the one with a slashed shoulder was Steel-kun.
The leader of the team was the tall, stoic man, Silenthawk, and the three other assassins who came with him to meet Shadow-san and Steel-kun were One Mark, Darkblade and Silver-chan.
The five informants who came later were two women named Maiko and Fujiwara, and three men named Sugimoto, Shuuko and Scarletmoon.
It took a while for Yoka to figure out that Scarletmoon was a man. He was dressed in woman’s clothes, spoke in a soft, demure voice and kept a respectful distance from the other men.
It wasn’t until she caught a glimpse of the faint bulge of his Adam’s apple when he tilted his head back to finish a bottle of sake before they broke camp that she realised.
The mercenaries travelled silently without taking a single break along the way. Yoka was certain, from their footwork alone, that every one of them were trained ninjas, regardless of their role in the group.
The mercenary base was hidden near the peak of Mt. Ishitani in the north of Saga. Wooden buildings melted into the side of the mountain, hidden amongst tall trees and natural overgrowth.
There were no paths leading up this mountain.
Mt. Ishitani merged seamlessly into the taller Mt. Kusenbu and the nearest river meandered away from it, allowing it to escape the notice of most, making it an appropriate place for the secret mercenary group to thrive.
Yoka perched her golden eagle form on one of the tall, unruly trees in the base and watched as Silenthawk and his team entered the clearing, welcomed by a pair of identical young boys dressed in altered samurai uniforms.
‘Is the mission complete? Did the client give us the rest of the bounty?’ they clamoured excitedly as the returning team entered a large wooden hall and settled down.
It wasn’t until they noticed that Shadow-san and Steel-kun were injured that they became solemn.
One of the boys ran into the barracks and summoned their team leader, Whitemoon, for Silenthawk.
Whitemoon was the leader of the ronin in this mercenary group and shared the same rank as Silenthawk.
‘The client was killed,’ Silenthawk said simply.
Whitemoon’s face stiffened.
One Mark, Silenthawk’s deputy, explained what happened in more detail.
After hearing the full story, Whitemoon relaxed.
‘It’s not a big deal. The daimyo of Karatsu merely has suspicions. It is unlikely that our existence has been discovered.’
Silenthawk nodded. ‘Removing the informants is just a precaution. The main problem is that we won’t receive the rest of the bounty.’
Whitemoon’s face darkened. ‘Master is not going to like that.’
The golden eagle preening her feathers on a branch just outside the window paused for a moment and fluttered quietly out of sight.
Later that evening, Maiko entered the office building used by the informants to store documents and took the folded letter on one of the desks.
This one looked like an office with many cubicles. She took out a piece of parchment and used a random brush on one of the desks to write out a similar-looking request letter.
Maiko read the letter once through, then folded it up and went looking for Silenthawk.
Silenthawk unfolded the letter and read it. His face changed and he asked, ‘Where did you get this letter?’
‘It was delivered to our secret checkpoint outside the city. This pouch came with it.’ She handed him a silk pouch with 10 koban coins in it.
The team leader furrowed his brows.
Maiko peered over his shoulder, concerned. ‘Is it a difficult mission?’
Silenthawk handed the letter to her. She pretended to read it, a shocked expression filling her unusual light-grey eyes.
‘This…eliminate the young daimyo of Karatsu…’
Her team leader’s expression was grave. ‘This client has gotten involved in our previous mission somehow. It seems that mission wasn’t as simple as it seemed.’