Chapter 11: That Shapeshifter, Preoccupied

Rin woke up swathed in a familiar, repulsive darkness. Her whole body ached fiercely and the air was heavy with the smell of human sweat.

Very faintly, she could make out some murmuring. Blood rushed in her ears so loudly, but she could fill in the blanks from experience. What they said was nothing worth repeating.

She clenched her teeth to keep herself from retching.

She’s still here in this hell. There was no escape. There was no creature with soulless light-grey eyes.

It was all just a dream.

Her hands moved to her throat.

She wasn’t bound.

Quickly, she searched for the mark of the oath that they made. A skin-coloured marking with a patterned “77” in the middle that the shapeshifter made at the side of her neck.

Her fingers brushed over the keloid scars that marked the oath under her skin and her heart calmed.

Her dilated eyes relaxed and reason returned to her.

She had escaped. The creature was real.

This was somewhere else. The surface she was lying on wasn’t the ice-cold surface of an altar but a damp wooden floor.

And the murmuring she heard was the grumbling of children from above her head.

‘They didn’t give us food even though we trained so hard today.’

‘Seki-sensei said too much food will make you lazy.’

‘But I’m too weak to take another step forward.’

Childish giggles rang out along an echoey corridor.

’Then you can just sleep here in the hallway!’

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Rin surveyed her surroundings. She was alone inside this dark hole.

Rin felt around and figured that the place she had been thrown into was a deep pit that had been dug out of the dirt. From the thin sliver of light above, she guessed that the opening above her head was probably covered by a wooden lid.

‘Tch!’ Rin scowled to herself in the darkness as she remembered what happened before she ended up here. ‘Useless shapeshifter!’

The voices of the children became louder.

‘Which cave did Seki-sensei say to bring the new children to?’

‘Room, not cave. We’re supposed to call it a room.’

‘Put them in Keisuke-san’s room. He’s in charge of the basic training.’

There was the sound of scraping wood and the flickering light of a torch lit up the dark pit from above.

Rin squinted against the sudden glare to see who had come. Small heads peered down at the doll-like girl sitting all alone in the pit.

‘There’s only one? And it’s a girl?’

‘What should we do?’

‘Seki-sensei’s going to get angry with Yoruichi-san again.’

‘Anyway, get her to Keisuke-san first.’

A rope ladder was lowered into the pit. One of the boys jumped in to help her out but she slapped his hand away as soon as he tried to touch her.

The boy raised his hands in surrender and gestured for her to climb.

They took her down a winding rocky corridor, past several marumado1circular door/window and entered a narrow tunnel.

The tallest boy knocked on a narrow shoji door and announced, ‘We’ve brought her.’ There was a pause, then the door creaked open to reveal the fat face of a shrewd-looking male servant.

He squinted his beady eyes at them. ‘There’s only one?’

The boys shrugged. They didn’t know anything. He grunted and crouched down to examine the little girl that they brought over. Rin was pushed forward with the hilt of a katana. ‘Greet Keisuke-san,’ someone said. ‘He’s in charge of the servant girls here.’

Rin looked up at Keisuke without any expression.

Keisuke kicked the door open all the way and grumbled, ‘Why can’t Yoruichi give me girls who can actually do work? A pretty face is useless around here.’

Then he noticed the boys were still there, so he told them to scram back to their barracks and slammed the door against its flimsy wooden frame.

The inside of this cave was built to look like the room of a proper residence.

Tatami mats covered the floor and wooden screens were propped up along the sides to hide the naturally curved walls of the cave. Wooden beams were installed overhead so lanterns could be hung to light up the room, but the shadows of rock peeking through revealed the room for what it really was.

Threadbare futons lay in neat rows, some of which already filled with the scrawny silhouettes of little girls.

Keisuke summoned an older girl who was crouched by the irori2a traditional sunken hearth used for heating the home and cooking food; essentially a square, stone-lined pit in the floor to get a set of clothing for the new girl.

He turned his beady eyes back to Rin and said, ‘From now on, you’re a servant in Lord Matsukura’s private army. If you do your duties well, you’ll be rewarded. If you prove yourself useless or try to escape, only death awaits.’

Rin curled her lip. Her ink-black eyes were like black holes that couldn’t reflect light. ‘What did Matsukura Aoko promise to give you that made you willingly cooperate with this joke of a rebellion?’

The fat male servant narrowed his eyes at her. ‘My family has been loyal to the Matsukura clan for centuries, I don’t need to be rewarded.’

Rin lifted her chin. ‘Then why don’t you recognise me, servant? I’ve visited your master’s residence in Kokura with my father on many occasions.’

Keisuke stared at her, his mind sifting through old memories.

Suddenly, his eyes widened and he stumbled backwards, bumping into the girl who returned with the kimono he asked for. He pointed with a shaky, fat finger at Rin and spluttered, ‘H-How can you be alive?’

The girl was knocked over by the man’s wide girth but she didn’t dare to make a sound and picked herself up quietly.

Rin’s eyes darkened as they flickered over to her, then back to Keisuke. There was no change in her expression as she said, ‘Take me to Matsukura Aoko.’

Keisuke led Rin down another maze of corridors, up a long flight of stairs and through an ornate-looking marumado to a large shoji door faintly lit up by hanging lanterns.

He was about to announce his arrival with the girl when Rin slid the door open on her own and stepped inside. He reached out to pull her back but she had advanced into the daimyo’s cavern as if it was hers.

‘Aoko-ojisan, it’s been a long time.’

Her greeting dripped with a heavy sarcasm that made a chill run down Keisuke’s spine. How could a young girl speak with such malevolence in her voice?

There were only two men inside this large cave the size of a castle’s main hall. Rin thought about the 50-plus girls squeezed inside the smaller cave she was in earlier and disgust rose like bile in her throat.

The two men were seated on opposite ends of a brightly lit low table. One of the men wore the armour of a samurai while the other wore a loose sleeping kimono that was too big for him.

The samurai drew his sword to defend against the intruder, but when he saw that the one who came in was a little girl, he froze. The other man’s eyes widened when he heard her voice and he quickly ordered the other man to stand down.

Matsukura Aoko scrambled to his feet and approached her with unsteady steps. She took a step back when he reached out to touch her. ‘Y-Rin-chan?’

Rin looked at his familiar face and felt nothing. He looked gaunt and spectre-like in the dark.

She smirked. ‘Are you disappointed to see me?’

Matsukura Aoko regained his composure and clasped his hands behind his back. He frowned slightly at the question he was asked. ‘Why would I be disappointed? You’re all that’s left of my friend, Terazawa Katataka.’

Rin giggled. He didn’t look sincere at all, addressing her late-father this way—by his full name. She waved a slender, white hand vaguely. ‘There’s no need to keep up appearances, Aoko-ojisan. Just speak to me plainly. Why are you doing this?’

The two of them stared at each other in silence for a while. Keisuke, who stood outside the cavern, thought about entering the room and dragging the little girl away, but he didn’t dare.

Matsukura Aoko sighed audibly and returned to his seat. ‘Very well, Terazawa Rin. I’ll be honest with you. I’m trying to take back Shimabara Domain so that I’ll have the power to avenge your father?’

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