Chapter 12: That Shapeshifter, Benevolent?
Rin’s first reaction was to curl her lip in derision. ‘Avenge my father? Why would you avenge my father after all the effort you put into getting him killed?’
She wanted to applaud his “honesty”. Did he really think she was like all the other kidnapped children, easily believing his lies and buying his threats?
The samurai at the table slammed his fist down and growled, ‘Don’t talk nonsense!’ The doll-like girl shifted her gaze over to him as if noticing his presence for the first time.
‘General Seki.’ Matsukura Aoko frowned at his general and told him to stand down. The burly man grunted and folded his arms in disgust.
Aoko-ojisan1uncle or middle-aged man turned back to Rin. ‘My family was exiled from Shimabara with no resources. I had no way to avenge him at that time.’ He gave her a self-deprecating smile and spread out his hands. ‘So I’ll accept the blame for being unable to save your father, but I didn’t kill him. In fact, I’m desperately trying to take over Shimabara again so I can hunt down those who have ruined your family.’
Rin stared at him with bottomless black eyes, trying to divine the truth from his bloodshot eyes.
Unlike the expressive man that would laugh and bicker with her father, this Aoko-ojisan had a haggard, poker face. His shoulders drooped and he sat down at the table again. ’Rin, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I need your help.’
‘You have a shapeshifter,’ Rin pointed out.
Matsukura Aoko didn’t ask how she knew about shapeshifters. He simply laughed and said, ’Yoruichi isn’t powerful enough. It’s been two years and we’re no closer to our goal.’
Candlelight flickered in his eyes.
‘On the other hand, Rin-chan, you have your domain back and you restored your family’s honour as soon as you returned.’ He pointed at her. ‘You have a shapeshifter who is more powerful than Yoruichi. I want you to help me.’
Rin smiled, but there was no trace of warmth on her doll-like face. ‘Do you think you’re doing me a favour, Aoko-ojisan? I don’t accept. I’ll kill the perpetrators with my own hands; I don’t need your help.’
Aoko-ojisan sighed and shook his head. ‘You’re as cruel as your grandfather. When it was time for someone to bear the responsibility of inciting the rebellion, he turned around and pointed his finger at my father as well.’
He took General Seki’s sword from him and approached Rin.
The little girl was unfazed. ‘Why should we bear the blame when it was your father’s greed and arrogance that riled up the people? Isn’t it good enough that we trusted you to know your limits before trouble broke out?’
Matsukura Aoko unsheathed the General Seki’s katana. ‘I’m not negotiating with you, little girl,’ he said in an even voice. ‘This is a threat. Swear that you’ll take back Shimabara and negotiate with the shogun, otherwise I’ll kill you.’
Cold metal was pressed against her white neck, resting on the collar of her kimono.
Rin lifted her chin to meet his gaze, her ink-black eyes defiant, unafraid of death. Matsukura Aoko’s face was equally unreadable. General Seki stepped forward, ready to assist in case the little girl had any tricks up her sleeve.
‘No,’ she replied.
The sharp edge cut into her skin and drew blood. ‘Your shapeshifter is not here, Rin-chan. Killing you won’t be difficult.’
Her pink lips curved up into a smile. ‘Since it’s not difficult, do it.’
The katana began to tremble. ‘I’m not fooling around. I’ll really kill you.’ But soon, even the hand that was holding the katana shook uncontrollably. He had no choice but to let go of the weapon before something irreversible happened.
At this moment, a slow clap began to echo throughout the cave.
Both Matsukura Aoko and Rin turned to see who had come. A dignified-looking monk walked in, followed closely by a plain-faced maid drenched in blood.
‘Bravo, Aoko-san~’ Yoruichi said with a mocking smile on his face. ‘Bravo~’
Rin frowned when she saw Yoka trailing behind the other shapeshifter. ‘I told you to kill it.’
The maid lowered her head and bowed. ‘My deepest apologies, Ojou-sama2polite form of young lady. I have failed you.’
The young mistress curled her lip. ’Tch!’
Yoruichi raised his eyebrows at Matsukura Aoko. ‘Did you hear that? She ordered her shapeshifter to kill me. Why haven’t you killed her yet?’
Matsukura Aoko stared back blankly.
All of a sudden, General Seki, who had been watching this farce for some time, stepped forward to pick up the katana and swung it in his daimyo’s steed.
The blade made a silvery arc through the air towards her, but Rin made no move to dodge.
She was watching the expression on Aoko-ojisan’s face change from one of incomprehension to horror.
‘Seki, stop!’ he yelled. His frantic voice reverberated in the darkened cavern.
The samurai pulled his arm back quickly but the katana still left a shallow streak of blood in its wake.
Time seemed to stand still for a moment.
‘You’re a coward,’ Rin sneered.
The man collapsed to his knees and stared at the gaps between the tatami mats on the ground. ‘Mn,’ he said to nobody in particular, ‘I am a coward. To achieve my own selfish goal, I pretended it was a worthy cause. And to hide my weaknesses, I threatened my best friend’s daughter.’
He lifted his head and looked at the 13 year-old who resembled an 8 year-old because of everything she went through after the death of her family. How could he live with himself if he killed her?
‘I’m human, Rin-chan.’
Yoruichi giggled in a voice that made the hair on the back of his neck rise. He stepped forward and patted him on the back comfortingly. ‘Aoko-san, you stopped being human the moment you made a blood oath with me.’
He tilted his bald head as he ran his fingers up to the man’s shoulder and rested it on his neck.
Matsukura Aoko was staring bleakly into his shapeshifter’s lidded grey eyes, so he didn’t see its arm morph into a tiger’s limb.
Nor did he notice sharp claws wrapping around his neck until it was crushed into a bloody pulp and he couldn’t breathe anymore.
‘I made that oath with you because you were fighting for a worthy cause—for Shimabara. But you really can’t achieve your goal if you don’t kill this brat, so let’s cut to the long story short and give me your life, okay?’
There was no last struggle or thrashing. Matsukura Aoko died silently with his eyes wide open.
Rin couldn’t take her eyes off the corpse of her father’s best friend as his head fell onto the ground with a thud.
It was only when General Seki reacted by letting out a vicious roar, ‘Yoruichi! How could you!’ that Rin pulled herself together—
Only to see the tiger’s claws reaching out for the samurai as well, piercing through his armour and tearing his heart out of his chest.
Yoruichi was complaining to Yoka, ‘How unfortunate! I didn’t even get a quality form out of this tedious oath.’ He turned and smiled innocently. ‘Can you have pity on me and give me your prey?’
Rin’s fingernails were so deeply embedded into her palms that she struggled to pull them out. The bald monk caught sight of her murderous look and spoke up before she could, ‘Okay! Okay! I know when I’m not welcome, I’ll get lost now.’
He backed out of the cavern and bowed righteously. ’Take care of yourself, my beloved prey.’ And then, he was gone.
Silence fell over the remaining two.
Yoka made no move to chase after the other shapeshifter. Rin narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brows, pale cheeks flushed with anger. ’You didn’t kill that shapeshifter. Why?’
The maid gave her a placating smile. ‘Saving you was more important at the time. Now, it’s no longer necessary.’
Rin snorted. ‘Just admit it. You don’t have the power to kill your own kind.’
Yoka knelt in front of her young mistress and pried her fingers from her palms, wiping the blood off with a soft cotton handkerchief.
Serious light-grey eyes met ink-black ones.
’Rest assured, Terazawa Rin, I do have the power to help you achieve your revenge.’
Rin lifted her chin and glared down her nose at her maid. ‘If you ever betray me, shapeshifter, I will kill you.’
Yoka lowered her head to kiss the knuckles of the hand she was holding.
‘As you wish, Ojou-sama3polite form of young lady.’