Chapter 3: That Shapeshifter, Welcoming
Rin slept for three hours.
When she woke up, she demanded sweets, so Yoka couldn’t begin any other preparations for the evening banquet until she made mochi for the young mistress.
Reika had been waiting for Yoka in the kitchen with the things she bought a long time ago. When she saw the maid bustling about, she made gestures to ask if she could help. Yoka was about to get her to gut the squid when Kii appeared.
‘Can I help too?’ she asked, widening her eyes to look as pitiful as possible.
She felt guilty about messing up earlier and wanted to redeem herself. Yoka sighed. ‘Gut the squids for me. Reika-san, make sure Kii-san doesn’t do anything else except gut the squids.’
‘Yes, yes, I got it! Don’t worry,’ Kii said and pushed Reika out into the courtyard with the basin of squids.
Yoka quickly brewed a pot of chrysanthemum tea and brought up the sweets for the young mistress.
While Rin ate, the maid did up her hair and helped her back into her kimono. ‘How are preparations for the banquet going?’ she asked.
Yoka smiled knowingly. ‘It’s going well,’ she replied. ‘Ojou-sama1polite form of young lady doesn’t need to worry about it.’
Rin made a nonchalant sound in her throat as she observed the mochi in her hands. ‘Is that so? Even though you have been up here all afternoon watching over me?’
The young mistress searched her soulless light-grey eyes with her piercing black gaze.
The maid replied perfectly, ‘A servant of Ojou-sama should only need a few hours to prepare a dinner banquet of this caliber.’
‘Pfft!’ Rin laughed as she stood up. ‘You’re conceited, shapeshifter. Even when you’re being humiliated.’
Yoka knelt in front of her and bowed, ‘I am whatever you need me to be, Ojou-sama.’
As the young mistress left her bedroom for the study, she tossed her head back and said, ‘Then, I look forward to your perfect hospitality later, maid-san.’
Yoka smiled to herself. This little role-play is nothing for what I will get in return. She tied up the sleeves of her kimono with a sarashi2a length of white cloth used to wrap around the body and returned to the kitchen.
Reika managed to get everything on the list Yoka gave to her. She surveyed the ingredients she had and made adjustments to the banquet menu.
With an hour left until the guests arrived, there wasn’t time to prepare anything elaborate. Yoka dropped the live crabs Reika bought into a pot of boiling water and began to make a dressing.
The two servants had finished gutting all the squids and came in to see if Yoka needed anymore help.
The maid had already bathed the boiled crabs in konbu dashi3dried kelp broth to add more flavour and blanched a large amount of mung bean sprouts and bamboo shoots for a vinegared salad.
She was searing a large slab of aged beef from the storeroom and stirring a pot of Chinese black pepper sauce when she received the basin of squid.
There was already fragrant rice steaming in a big pot in the corner and miso soup with cubes of silken tofu dancing over another stove.
Even the bowls and utensils to be used later were all laid out neatly on the table, ready to be filled.
Kii was speechless for once. It had only been half an hour since Yoka was making mochi for the young mistress and now, the whole banquet dinner was almost ready?
‘Yoka-san, you’re really impressive!’ the cook gushed when she finally found her voice. ‘How did you get so much done so quickly? What’s the secret to doing everything well? Tell me, I want to learn!’
With the finesse of an expert, Yoka sliced the raw squids into neat sashimi strips and arranged them in neat rows.
‘That idiot samurai is always tinkering around but he hasn’t ever made anything useful…’
She was cutting a yuzu in half when she paused.
That’s right, there were two troublemakers. Only one has been accounted for.
Yoka wiped her hands on a tea towel and turned to the two girls. ‘I’m going to see if the guests have arrived. Go fetch a dozen bottles of sake from the storeroom.’
In a blink of an eye, the maid was gone, speeding towards the guardhouse on the other side of the castle’s inner walls with her morphed legs.
Since only the young mistress, Yoka and the three servants lived in the entire Shin-Karatsu Castle, they had no need for the guardhouse.
The gate to the castle keep was bolted at all times to keep the young mistress safe.
It was only during rare occasions like this that the gates would be opened for a short while and Yuzuru would be stationed at the guardhouse next to it to close them after the guests arrived.
This freeloading samurai who couldn’t wield a sword could at least clean up the dusty, unused guardhouse and be trusted to keep guard, right?
There was half an hour until the guests arrived and the guardhouse looked like a typhoon ran through it.
Planks of wood and metal tools were strewn all over the ground. Not only were the counters and chairs still dusty, there was now a layer of sawdust and splintered wood on top of it.
Yuzuru sat in the middle of this whole mess, screwing an old broom to some tall wooden contraption.
He didn’t even look up when Yoka came in.
The maid sighed and resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. ‘What have you been doing for the whole day?’
When Yuzuru turned and saw Yoka, his eyes lit up. ‘Yoka-san! I’ve almost succeeded in making a mechanical broom that can sweep itself.’
He held up the ugly-looking contraption in his hand. A loosely embedded piece of wood fell off.
‘Couldn’t you do this after cleaning up?’
There was no time to waste. The guests were going to arrive soon. Yoka kicked Yuzuru and his contraption out of the guardhouse. She drew a bucket of water, got a rag and zipped through the guardhouse with her enhanced arms and legs.
She came out fifteen minutes later and replaced Yuzuru with the more reliable Reika. There was a bell rope in the guardhouse that she could let Yoka know from the kitchen when the guests arrived.
Yuzuru was banished to the servants’ quarters. So was Kii, who insisted on bringing one bottle of sake along with her to pass the time.
Yoka had just finished brewing a pot of green tea when the guardhouse’s bell rang.
She rushed back to the guardhouse to take over from Reika. ‘Take the tea tray and squid sashimi to Moon Gazing Hall,’ she whispered as they crossed paths. The teenage girl nodded and ran off.
Yoka greeted the five Nagasaki officials who came, bowing low as she said, ‘Welcome to Shin-Karatsu Castle, Hirayama-dono, Yoshimoto-dono, Nakatani-dono, Kuwahara-dono, Teshima-dono. The daimyo of Karatsu has prepared a dinner banquet to foster goodwill amongst the shogun’s appointed officials in Nagasaki.’
She led them to Moon Gazing Hall, the largest tea room in the guest wing beside the main keep. This hall had a movable east wall that could be shifted aside so that guests could admire the moon as it rose into the sky.
Reika came in with the tray of tea and zensai4appetisers just as they sat down on the zabuton5large, flat cushions for sitting/kneeling on the floor placed around an large low table big enough to sit twenty-four people.
As soon as Reika placed the fresh, gleaming squid in front of them, the officials began to eat without reserve. The oldest official, Nakatani, praised the squid as chewy and delicious, fresher than the freshest squid from Nagasaki City.
The fattest official, Yoshimoto, agreed with an exaggerated sigh. ‘This would go well with sake.’
The youngest official, Teshima, asked tentatively, ‘Can we have sake to go with this?’
And so the fiercest-looking official, Hirayama, pressured Yoka with, ‘This squid zensai is so delicious, it deserves to be paired with good sake.’
‘Certainly, I will bring it right away. Ojou-sama will join you presently, please enjoy yourselves in the meantime.’
‘We will, we will,’ Hirayama said, waving Yoka away.
Even the quietest official, Kuwahara, sat up straighter upon hearing that sake will be served. No one paid any attention to the maid’s second sentence.
With one look, Reika understood and scuttled to the kitchen with an empty tray.
Yoka made her way upstairs to fetch the young mistress, her lip curling in derision. Let the show of hospitality begin…