Chapter 25: That Shapeshifter, Intimidating
When she was done, she handed the bloodied kunai to Yoka and ordered for the same to be done to Silenthawk.
Yuzuru returned with Reika and Kii just as the leader of assassins let out an agonising, muffled scream. Each of them were carrying a bucket of hot, steaming water as they stepped into this gruesome scene.
Reika caught sight of Whitemoon’s face and recognised him at once. Her grip on her bucket turned slack and the hot water spilled out everywhere, turning the outer room into a sea of red.
She dropped to her knees, trembling. She tried to speak but no words came out. Her mouth opened and closed, revealing the remnants of a severed tongue, but no words came out.
Reika recognised the mercenary leader’s face. She had seen him directing the black-clad men who filled Karatsu Castle that fateful night.
He had been the one who chased after her and her mother to silence them before they could alert the guards.
In one swift motion, he caught her arm and cut off her tongue. Just as he was about to end her life, her mother had stepped in, wrapped her into a tight embrace and died in her place.
The last word the washerwoman ever said to her had been in the moment right after, when Whitemoon was distracted by the call of one of his men who had located the daimyo and his family.
‘R-Run,’ she said weakly, blood gurgling from the slit in her throat. ‘Run.’
A thin bloodied hand reached out and grasped her trembling one, squeezing tight. She turned her head mechanically to meet a familiar ink-black gaze.
‘It’s over,’ the young mistress said in an even voice. ‘You don’t have to be haunted by the events of that day anymore.’
She kicked the limp appendage lying nearby in the red water as she curled her lip.
‘He can’t hurt you anymore. He belongs to me now.’
Reika shook her head. That’s not it, she wanted to say. I’m not haunted by that day, I’m worried about you—that you will lose yourself to revenge.
But there was no way for her to say that.
She could only gesture for Kii to lower her bucket of water and wash the blood from the young mistress’s small, guiltless hands.
Don’t dirty your hands with the blood of these people, Ojou-sama! Let me do it for you!
While Reika dried her hands with a cloth, she turned a triumphant gaze onto the two writhing mercenary leaders, feeling extremely pleased with herself.
‘From now on, both of you are my prisoners,’ the young daimyo declared. ‘Forget your previous master. Your loyalty belongs to me now. Since you’ve served a shapeshifter before, you should know that there’s no escape from the clutches of one—so don’t even think about betraying me.’
Both Whitemoon and Silenthawk were still wrecked with waves of pain, groaning into their gags. There was no way to ascertain whether they understood Rin’s words or not.
The young mistress didn’t care either.
She turned to her servants. ‘Clean up this mess and burn the Terazawa mon1a clan’s insignia onto the back of their necks. Yoka and I are going to the mercenary’s base.’
‘Take me with you!’ Yuzuru blurted out. He stepped forward, his eyes earnest. ‘I’m your samurai guard. Let me go along and protect you!’
Rin gave him a nonchalant smile. ‘There will be many sharp swords there. Perhaps shuriken and arrows as well. Can you take it?’
Her samurai guard faltered. His ears turned red with shame but he narrowed his eyes with determination. ‘I-I’ll do my best! How can I call myself a samurai if Yoka is the one protecting you all the time?’
The young mistress let out a puff of laughter. ‘A samurai doesn’t only serve as a daimyo’s weapon. He is also the enforcer of his decrees. Yuzuru, this daimyo wants you to watch over these two important prisoners.’
The samurai’s face brightened immediately. He saluted with an enthusiastic bow. ‘Understood, Ojou-sama!’
Behind her, Yoka thought to herself, ‘He’s so easy to fool.’
The shapeshifter took on the form of a tengu again and flew to the mercenary base hidden on Mt. Ishitani.
There was a bustle of activity in the main clearing as they approached it.
All the agents, ronin and shinobi alike, were gathered in neat rows with packs of supplies all around them. Yoka recognised a few of the informants from Maiko’s memory leading the operation at the head of the crowd.
The young daimyo gave tengu-Yoka an accusing glare as they hovered over the crowd. ‘Look at what a pathetic job you’ve done! These ants are actually preparing to flee. How were you planning to gather them all up for me?’
The tengu’s ugly red face contorted in an attempt at a patronising smile. ‘Give me an order, Ojou-sama, and I will carry it out in full.’
The black wings of the tengu fluttered like two large cloaks as Yoka landed in the middle of the mercenaries. The ronin agents drew their swords and the shinobi reached for their kunai, backing away from the terrifying creature that suddenly appeared in their midst.
‘Castrate them all,’ Rin ordered with a casual sweep of her sleeve. ‘And brand them with the Terazawa mon so everyone will know who they belong to.’
Yoka looked up at the young mistress with a surprised expression. ‘Don’t you want to kill them to avenge your family?’
Rin curled her lip and replied, ‘They’re more useful to me alive than dead.’
The tengu smiled at this and knelt on one knee before her. ‘Understood, Ojou-sama. Your wish is my command.’
Yoka’s light-grey eyes glowed and she spread her wings, flashing through the crowd with her clawed fingers unsheathed.
Most of the mercenaries wore reinforced breeches to protect themselves from unpleasant sneak attacks, so castrating and branding them took quite a bit of finesse, but eventually, a mountain of limp, screeching men and crying women piled up in the once orderly forest clearing.
Rin stood in a dry, bloodless area of the clearing, watching her shapeshifter swoop after the runaway mercenaries through the forest and catching them for her, like a dog playing fetch with its master.
‘Tch!’ she scoffed and sulked under her breath, ‘How disappointing. They’re just the ants…it’s not satisfying at all.’
‘Ojou-sama,’ the tengu interrupted her brooding. ‘That’s every one of them.’
All traces of dissatisfaction vanished from her face. She raised her voice and said, ‘There’s going to be a few changes around here. For a start, I am your new master, Terazawa Yin. You are now my prisoners. From now on, you will do my bidding or suffer an even worse fate. Do you understand?’
There was no reply, only the faint sounds of suffering.
Rin nodded her head, satisfied. ‘Very good.’
Since the mercenaries had conveniently packed up their supplies before they assembled in the clearing like sheep to be slaughtered by the tengu, so Rin ordered for all their belongings to be brought along with the prisoners to the empty samurai village outside Shin-Karatsu Castle.
She also ordered Yoka to find more information about the mysterious “patrons” that the mercenaries worked for.
However, most of the mercenaries were unable to tell her anything the shapeshifter didn’t already know.
No one seemed to have dealt with these “patrons” face to face.
Even Silenthawk and Whitemoon weren’t able to tell the impatient young mistress what she wanted to hear.
‘The “patrons” first approached our mercenary group twenty years ago,’ Silenthawk explained. ‘But only Master has seen them in person. As team leaders, we have only ever received their sealed letters.’
Eager to exonerate himself, Whitemoon added, ’But Master once mentioned that they would wear the same festival masks when they meet with him. We don’t ask about their background since, as mercenaries, we’re only concerned about the bounty.
‘If Lord Terazawa wants, Silenthawk and I can dispatch our informants to find out more at the checkpoints where we’ve received their written requests in the past. But it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll be able to trace what we know about those requests back to the “patrons” themselves.’
Rin’s ink-black gaze turned cold. She pursed her pink lips into a frown. ‘Then don’t bother. Send people to find that grey-eyed “Master” of yours instead. Find him for me and report back to Yoka within a week.’
After the mercenary leaders were dismissed, Yoka asked with some amusement, ‘Why did you ask them to find Seventy-One? Don’t you usually leave such menial tasks to me?’
The young mistress lifted her chin proudly. ‘There’s no need to use a cleaver to cut a piece of cloth. Catching that “Master” guy is simply a matter of time. What I want now is to find the mastermind who ordered my clan to be massacred.’
She reached out a slender hand to pick up her tea cup and inhaled the familiar osmanthus aroma, eyes narrowing in pleasure.
‘I also think it’s funny to have this “Master” be hunted down by the people who once did his bidding.’
Saga had fields of the best tea leaves in Japan, but the osmanthus tea brewed by her own maid was in the comfort of home would always be the best.
Rin took a few more sips, sitting back on her heels contentedly.
There was a knock on the other side of the shoji door. Yuzuru slipped into the room and handed Rin a sealed letter. ‘A servant delivered this.’
“Rin-chan” was written on the front of it in lackadaisical calligraphy.
Rin-chan scowled as she opened it. Who dared to send her something so distasteful?
The red imprint of the Tokugawa mon at the bottom stared back at her.
But unlike its casual front, the contents of the letter were serious and devoid of Tokugawa Iemitsu’s usual literary flair.
Yoka watched her young mistress’s face change from annoyed to serious, then contemplative.
Ink-black eyes looked up into her light-grey ones.
‘The shogun wants me to re-investigate the murders of two samurai guards in Nagasaki that were previously concluded as a kataki-uchi2blood-revenge killing where a samurai could avenge the death of his direct family member by killing the perpetrator in a duel.’
The maid tilted her head. ‘Were you involved in the investigation?’
Rin shook her head, her long, black hair brushing over the letter. ‘I’ve only read the final report. There was nothing special about the case, so the yoriki3higher-ranked samurai who served as police officials under the bugyō closed it quickly.’
But now the shogun wants Terazawa-bugyō4administrative magistrate to re-open the case. Why?
Deep in thought, Rin reached out for her half-empty tea cup. Yoka refilled it in the blink of an eye.
‘Why did the shogun pay attention to this case?’ she grumbled. ‘He doesn’t usually get involved with these mundane things.’
According to the report Rin had received, it was simple case of kataki-uchi. The victims had their katana taken away by the killer—the first indicator of a revenge killing.
A search was made of the kataki-uchi lists in the towns of the surrounding domains and the names of these samurai guards were found on a kataki-uchi permit registered in Shimabara.
Thus, the case was closed.
There had been nothing odd about such a simple case. Yet the shogun wanted her to look at the case again.
Clearly, he did not think it was kataki-uchi.
Which meant he had information about the murders from a different source.
‘Get the servants ready,’ she ordered. ‘We’re going to Nagasaki tonight.’
Rin’s eyes narrowed as she studied the letter once more.
There was one sentence in the missive that bothered her: ‘You will need help to get to the bottom of this case, my child, so I have sent my ears to you.’
Rin had a feeling she was not going to like these “ears” the shogun would be sending—whatever they were.