Chapter 8: That Shapeshifter, Deployed
Shinji Tsuguru’s father was a loyal samurai captain that served the Terazawa clan and her father’s best friend. There were centuries of friendship and loyalty between the Shinji family and the Terazawa clan.
As captain of the guards, Tsuguru’s father lived with his wife and son in the samurai village of the old Karatsu Castle and would often bring Tsuguru into the castle keep to play with Rin.
Tsuguru was two years younger than Rin but he was already training to be a samurai like his father from the age of 6. The year the massacre happened, he had gone back to his mother’s clan to learn to learn their martial arts.
While he was there, he received the news that his parents had perished along with everyone else in the Terazawa clan.
He had no need to go back to Karatsu after that.
Now, three years later, he stepped into a castle keep that was looked exactly as he remembered it. The main hall where his father often had meetings with the daimyo1Japanese feudal lord, the dark wood staircases he knew by heart from playing tag with the servant boys.
The majestic dining hall where he first met Rin.
It had the same number of round tables and the same hanging scrolls on the walls as before.
Rin sat at the same table like that first time, the one in the middle of the room that was at the centre of everyone’s attention—except now, she was alone.
She looked exactly the same as she did three years ago, petite and doll-like, with a vacant ink-black gaze that seemed to look right through him.
He felt as though he had stepped back in time.
‘Tsuguru,’ she greeted as he came in.
Unlike her, he had changed a lot. He had grown a full head taller and developed muscles from all his sword training. He was a different person now. No longer a carefree child but a samurai, pledged to a daimyo that wasn’t named Terazawa.
Rin watched as Tsuguru struggled to decide what he should say to her. A stuffy feeling she couldn’t name rose in her chest.
He bore some resemblance to the playful little boy in her memory—he had the same fire in his eyes, he had the same gait—but those days felt they belonged to her past life.
She, on the other hand, had been twisted beyond recognition. That, she decided, was the reason he didn’t know what to say to her anymore.
Tsuguru cleared his throat. ’How have you been?’ he said at last, his voice more husky than she remembered.
‘Busy,’ she replied curtly.
His hand absently reached for his sword, only for his fingers to close around thin air.
Weapons weren’t allowed inside a daimyo’s castle. He had left his sword at the entrance to the keep as was customary.
He placed them on his lap and sat up straighter. ’From now on, if you need help, let me know. I will come to you.’
This made the corners of Rin’s lips quirk up ever so slightly. ‘You serve a different daimyo now,’ she reminded him.
Tsuguru lifted his chin. ‘Doesn’t matter. My father has always served yours. Now, it’s my turn to protect you. Also, you’re my betrothed.’
Yoka, who had just come in with their breakfast, halted for a moment. What did she just hear?
Rin’s face turned red in an instant and she waved her hands frantically. ’T-hat…it’s not valid anymore! My parents are gone.’
Tsuguru frowned. ‘What do you mean it’s not valid? I have to honour the wishes of our parents now that it turns out you’re alive and well.’
Yoka bowed her head and bit her lower lip to avoid laughing out loud.
She began to nitpick at the arrangement of the ichiju-sansai2a Japanese meal that consists of one soup and three dishes plates so she could hear more of the conversation and watch her young mistress become more flustered.
Rin threw her a deadly side-glare and said to Tsuguru, ‘It can’t be that you’ve come here just to pressure me into marrying you!’
Tsuguru almost spat out the osmanthus tea he was drinking to hide his embarrassment. He shook his head violently. ‘Of course not! I came because of an incident.’
The young mistress gestured for him to speak.
‘Children from villages all over Buzen Province3an old province in northern Kyūshū in the area of Fukuoka and Ōita prefectures have gone missing,’ he explained. ‘In the past few years, there were only a few cases so no one thought much of it. But recently, children have been disappearing in large numbers.’
Rin felt her limbs turn cold. ‘The children who were kidnapped, how old are they?’ she asked.
Tsuguru furrowed his brows. ‘Around 6 to 15 years old. We don’t know if they’ve been kidnapped…’ His voice trailed off when he noticed the change in her expression.
The young mistress slammed her chopsticks down onto the table and laughed bitterly. ‘What else could it be? Do you think they turned into kami4gods and reached takamanohara5the high plain of the heavenly gods on their own?’
‘Ojou-sama6polite form of young lady,’ Yoka interrupted.
Tsuguru had been about to suggest that the children might have been killed rather than kidnapped before Rin snapped. He wasn’t trying to comfort her or dismiss the fate of these children.
Rin knew this, but she couldn’t help herself.
Suddenly, Tsuguru thought of something and his face paled. His hand unconsciously searched for his sword once more as his heart turned cold.
Rin reappeared out of nowhere a few months ago and reclaimed the title of Lord Terazawa of Karatsu, but it had been three years since the massacre of their parents.
In the two years she was missing…
Tsuguru’s eyes darkened with grief. ‘Rin-chan…’
Rin pulled her nails from where they had dug into her palms and sought comfort from the light-grey eyes of her maid.
‘Yoka, this is an order.’ Her voice was louder than normal to mask the way it trembled. ‘Check every village and find out if any children have been taken from my domain.’
Yoka smiled, her soulless eyes like glowing lights to the girl trapped in darkness.
She bowed deeply in acknowledgement. ’Understood, Ojou-sama.’
Even before the maid left the room, Rin had already regained her composure. It was as if her agitated reaction just then had been a figment of Tsuguru’s imagination.
The young daimyo picked up her chopsticks with a steady hand and brought a rectangular piece of sweet usuage to her mouth.
The young samurai breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed a little.
‘Rin-chan, I’m really glad you’re alive.’
A thorough investigation that would have taken a trained samurai like Tsuguru three days to complete only took Yoka three hours.
Karatsu’s population had become sparse in the years following the Shimabara Rebellion and many of the villagers that lived here now had been transferred over from the northern regions.
Who the daimyo was didn’t matter to them as long as their quality of life could be improved.
So when it was said that Rin’s father murdered his clan then committed suicide to atone for causing the Shimabara Rebellion, the people easily believed it and changed their opinion of him as quickly as the wind changes directions.
Thus, when the truth of the massacre was revealed and Rin was appointed daimyo, the relationship between the people and their feudal lord became awkward.
Using the identity of a wandering monk, Yoka quickly discovered a hushed rumour about the new daimyo (Rin) kidnapping peasant children to make up for her family’s massacred servants.
Tsuguru’s face darkened when he heard this and he absently reached for his sword again.
Rin sipped her osmanthus tea nonchalantly and asked, ‘How many children were taken?’
The plain-faced maid bowed. ’Thirteen from Tenzan Village last week and five from Kyuragi Village yesterday.’
Rin’s ink-black eyes hardened and Tsuguru cursed.
‘They’re working their way west,’ he muttered to himself. He stood up to leave. ‘Better get to work.’
He grinned at Rin, his eyes lingering on her face like he was memorising it.
For a moment, his figure appeared to be replaced with his 8 year old self on the day he was going to his mother’s hometown. His bright eyes fixed on her, reluctant to leave.
On that day, he had said, ‘I’ll come back to you quickly, Rin-chan.’
Today, as he buckled his katana back to his waist, he said something similar.
‘I’ll be back soon, Rin-chan.’
Then, instead of leaving immediately, he turned to Yoka and began to nag, ‘Be more alert and protect Rin-chan better. Don’t let strangers approach her so easily. Improve your martial arts and defend your young mistress with your life.’
Rin was taken aback. But the plain-faced maid next to her simply smiled and bowed deeply. ‘Shinji-dono can rest assured, I will protect her with my life.’
He looked back many times on his way out before finally disappearing into the distance.
Once he was gone, the young mistress turned to her maid. ‘Pack some things quickly. We’ll go to Kyuragi Village now.’