Chapter 14: That Shapeshifter, Speculating

One week after Rin returned to the castle, Tsuguru came to visit.

He came the conventional way this time, by knocking on the castle gates and reporting his presence to Yuzuru at the guardhouse, instead of scaling the walls and attacking the maid.

Rin had only just woken up when Yoka reported his arrival.

‘Why did he come again?’ she grumbled, her eyes still half-closed. ‘Tell him to leave. Lord Koriki has found the children and escorted them home. Everything else has nothing to do with me.’

Yoka thought Shinji Tsuguru resembled an abandoned dog that had found its owner again and refused to leave. It wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of him this time.

‘Why don’t you take this opportunity to tell him plainly that you won’t marry him,’ she suggested as she helped Rin into a black and yellow patterned kimono.

Her light-grey eyes flashed with amusement when Rin frowned.

‘Or are the feelings mutual?’

Rin glared at her. ‘Damned shapeshifter,’ she spat, pulling her head free of the braid Yoka had already begun to weave at the back of her head. ‘It’s none of your business!’

The shapeshifter grabbed her chin and forced her head back into position.

But instead of redoing her hair, Yoka leaned close to her ear and murmured, ‘It’s very much my business, Ojou-sama. Your soul will be devoured by me, so I deserve to know.’

The young mistress snorted but didn’t struggle.

She lowered her eyes demurely and sipped her osmanthus tea. In a soft voice, she said, ’Don’t worry, shapeshifter. There’s no way I’ll marry him.’ And even softer still, ‘I can’t.’

Yoka finished dressing her up and let her go. ‘He’s waiting for you in White Crane Dining Hall.’

Rin descended one flight of stairs and headed for her study, waving dismissively at her maid. ‘Tell him to go home, I’m too busy with work to see him.’

In the end, she was trying to hand this responsibility over to her. What a sly brat.

Yoka licked her lips in anticipation. Terazawa Rin was everything she expected and more. She would be this shapeshifter’s tastiest meal yet.

As expected, Tsuguru refused to leave.

He frowned at the meal Yoka placed in front of him. ‘The job of a Nagasaki bugyō1administrative magistrate must be really difficult for a girl her age. I’ll wait until she’s done. Tell her to take her time.’

His eyes were clouded with worry but he beamed at the maid with pride, as if Rin was a wife who brought honour to him.

Yoka swallowed the satirical laugh that bubbled in her throat and left to serve breakfast to the young mistress.

‘Tch!’ Rin scowled when she heard this. She poked several holes in the saba fish on her tray and stabbed at her bowl of rice. ‘Leave him be for a few hours, then tell him my work won’t be done till late at night.’

The maid suppressed her smile and replied, ‘Yes, Ojou-sama.’

Tsuguru wandered around the castle grounds all morning and then called Yoka to berate her for not hiring more people to patrol the perimeter and leaving the guardhouse unattended.

Yuzuru, who had come to show off yet another of his half-baked inventions, heard this and rushed to explain the elaborate contraption he rigged up so they’d know when anyone approached the castle gates.

The young samurai wasn’t impressed at all and ordered Yoka to seek out the late daimyo’s retainer families and gather more people to Rin’s side.

‘You can’t let her do all the work alone like this,’ he scolded righteously. ‘She’s still a child.’

‘Look here, boy,’ Kii interrupted, setting down her bottle of sake with a loud thump and marching over to add to the chaos. ’You think we don’t want more people around to split the work with? You think we want to look after this giant castle all by ourselves?’

The woman forced him all the way out of the kitchen, her breath reeking of alcohol so early in the morning. ‘Of course, we’ve asked her to hire more people but she refused.’

‘Why would she refuse?’ Tsuguru demanded.

‘How would I know?! She only said that we should do what we can and leave the rest to Yoka-san.’

Tsuguru looked Yoka up and down. ‘Leave the rest to her? This maid is obviously incapable of protecting Rin-chan!’

‘How dare you say that about Yoka-san!’ Kii and Yuzuru both yelled at the same time.

Yuzuru: ‘Yoka-san can clean up all the rooms in Shin-Karatsu Castle in just two hours.’

Kii: ‘She can also make plants grow overnight.’

‘How’s that possible?’ Tsuguru exploded with irritation. ‘Is she superhuman?’

The two of them yelled in response, ‘Yes!’

The samurai boy was taken aback by this joint outburst. He didn’t expect the other servants would think so highly of this plain-faced, ordinary-looking maid.

After lunch, Yoka told Tsuguru that Rin would be busy with work until late at night, so he should leave first.

He was silent for a while, thrumming his fingers on the lacquered table absently. Then, he turned to the maid and said, ‘Let me stay here for a while to help out.’

Yoka smiled blandly. ‘Thank you for your concern, Shinji-dono, but there’s no need for that. Ojou-sama doesn’t like outsiders staying in her castle overnight.’

Tsuguru frowned. ‘I’m not an outsider, we’re betrothed to each other.’

As a maid, she couldn’t argue with him, so she simply reported this to Rin.

The young mistress dropped the book she was examining onto the desk and frowned. ‘Why is he being so difficult?’

Yoka thought this statement was ironic. Aren’t you being stubborn as well? In the end, what she said was, ‘So, what will you do, Ojou-sama?’

Rin’s ink-black eyes swirled with vulnerability for a moment, but soon became resolute and dispassionate again.

She slammed the door to White Crane Dining Hall against its frame and strode into the room. Tusguru lit up like a lantern when he saw her and he greeted her with an enthusiastic bow.

But before he could say more, she interrupted him, ‘Go home. Don’t stay here and be a nuisance. I have no time to entertain you.’

The abandoned dog looked confused for a moment, unable to comprehend why its master no longer wanted it. ‘You don’t have to entertain me. I can help you. We’re betrothed after all, it’s what I should do.’

Rin pursed her lips. ‘That was a decision our parents made. They’re gone now, so there’s no need to shackle yourself down with a meaningless union.’

He took a step forward. ‘It’s not meaningless.’

Rin took a step back and sneered. ‘No? Then, in the two years after my death, what have you done?’

Tsuguru opened his mouth. Then, closed it without saying anything.

Rin sneered. ‘You didn’t even come to pay your respects. You didn’t do anything. If I didn’t return as daimyo of Karatsu, our betrothal would have been a shameful secret you’d never mention to anyone, wouldn’t it?’

‘That’s not true!’ Tsuguru said.

Ink-black eyes continued to blaze with dark fire. ‘Terazawa Rin has already died, Shinji Tsuguru. The girl my father betrothed to you no longer exists. And I will never marry you. Not now or ever. So go back and serve your new daimyo well. Don’t come back here to bother me again!’

The shoji door of the dining hall was slammed against the wall one more time.

The samurai boy slumped his shoulders sadly. ‘What could I have done?’ he mumbled to himself. ‘I was just a kid too.’

Tsuguru’s eyes brushed over the only other person left in the room, the plain-faced maid he didn’t like very much.

‘What did she experience in those two years? She wasn’t like this before.’

After an appropriate length of silence, Yoka spoke up, ‘I’ll escort you to the castle gates.’

Shinji Tsuguru clenched his hands into fists and glared at her fiercely. ‘No need! I can leave by myself.’ He jabbed a finger at her. ‘You better take good care of her while I’m gone. I’ll be back again after I explain the situation to the other daimyo.’

At the entrance of the castle keep, he stopped for a moment and looked up at the pair of gilded shachihoko2mythical orca-like creatures (with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp) found on the top of the roofs of castles, temple gates or samurai houses during the Edo Period, gleaming on top of the castle’s curved roof.

He turned back to declare boldly to the watching maid, ‘I couldn’t protect her then, but from now on, I will!’

Then, he picked up his sword and stomped away.

When Yoka reported this, Rin pursed her lips unhappily and slammed her brush down on the table.

’Why are boys so annoying?!’

Just then, a letter from Edo Castle arrived for Lord Terazawa.

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