Chapter 16: That Shapeshifter, Gossiping
One month ago, Nabeshima Katsushige’s adult son, Mitsushige, woke up screaming from a nightmare.
In this dream, he encountered a black cat with a long, snake-like tail that followed him as he went about his day. No matter where he went, the cat would follow along as well.
Frustrated, he confronted the cat and told it to leave him alone. Suddenly, the cat morphed into an older version of Ryūzōji Matashichirō, one of his servants who was distantly related to the previous daimyo, and said, ‘I am Ryūzōji Takafusa, the rightful daimyo of Hizen Province. Your father took my domain from me. Now, I will take it back.’
The Ryūzōji clan had been daimyo over the Hizen Province since the ancient times. It wasn’t until Ryūzōji Masaie, Takafusa’s father, took over the domain from his late father that things started to go awry.
Because of Masaie’s frail health, the domain’s affairs were handed over to his senior retainer, Nabeshima Naoshige, to handle. Nabeshima Naoshige was Katsushige’s father.
Thereafter, when the Ryūzōji clan aligned themselves with Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the late Sengoku Period, Hideyoshi chose to recognise the governance of Nabeshima Naoshige instead of acknowledging Ryūzōji Takafusa as the rightful daimyo of the province.
Later, when Tokugawa Ieyasu united all of Japan and became shogun, he did the same.
Distraught, Takafusa stabbed his wife and took his own life. His father, Masaie succumbed to his illness in despair and died too. The other retainers of the Ryūzōji clan chose to support Nabeshima Naoshige’s rule and appointed his son, Katsushige, as successor of the domain instead of Takafusa’s young son.
After the cat spoke those ominous words, it opened its jaws—growing in size as it did so—and consumed Mitsushige, who then woke the whole castle with his blood-curling screams.
Since then, he had refused to leave his bedroom.
Even though many years had passed since Nabeshima Katsushige became daimyo, there were many who felt pity for the Ryūzōji family and some who had mixed feelings about the Nabeshima clan’s growing power.
Thus, although Lord Nabeshima did his best to prevent the castle servants from spreading this news, the rumour that Takafusa had come to take revenge on Nabeshima Katsushige in the form of a bakeneko1a single-tailed ghost cat took form and began to spread throughout the city.
Over the course of the week, some castle servants reported seeing a real bakeneko lurking around the castle and the rumour spread that Takafusa’s target was not just Katsushige and his son, but that all the retainers living in Saga Castle would be affected.
Lord Nabeshima mused, ‘Just to be safe, we disposed of all the cats in the castle. But that just made things worse.’
More and more people began to believe the rumour that Saga Castle was haunted by a bakeneko. It was even made known that Mitsushige had a servant who was a member of the Ryūzōji family and a rumour spread that this man was the bakeneko sent to kill him.
A few days later, Nabeshima Mitsushige found his servant, Ryūzōji Matashichirō, dead in the corridor to his bedroom. A dead cat was found his courtyard, slit from the throat to the stomach, as if a ghost pulled itself out of the cat’s skin.
Matashichirō had been stabbed with a poisoned needle in the middle of the night.
Yet another rumour began to spread: Nabeshima Mitsushige feared for his life, so he killed his Ryūzōji servant in cold blood and aroused the full wrath of the bakeneko.
An attempt was made on Mitsushige’s life. But Lord Nabeshima had doubled the guards and the assassin failed and vanished into the night, unable to be found.
All he left behind was the corpse of a dead cat with its belly slit wide open.
A corner of Rin’s lips quirked up when the story reached this point.
That secret mercenary group might really exist.
Lord Nabeshima noticed the change in the young girl’s expression, but he didn’t feel hopeful at all. He rubbed his forehead wearily.
‘How were you expecting the shogun’s yoriki2police officers to deal with such rumours, hm?’ Rin asked lightly.
Without waiting for an answer, she rose from her seat and prepared to leave.
‘What are you going to do first?’ Lord Nabeshima asked. He stood up as well. ‘Are you going to interrogate the servants in my castle?’
Rin giggled. ‘What’s the point of that? They won’t tell me anything useful.’
The young daimyo of Karatsu spun around and stared at him with shining ink-black eyes. ‘I’m going to listen to more rumours.’
Yoka, who heard the whole conversation with her supernatural hearing, smirked where she stood waiting in the corridor.
Teahouses were the places to be if you wanted to get the latest news. There, the walls were paper thin and the gossipers gathered in droves to exchange information.
And away from the strict rules of the Tokugawa shogunate who ruled from Edo, there was no separate pleasure quarter like Yoshiwara here—you could enjoy those services as long as you walked into the right teahouse and asked the right questions.
The sun dipped below the horizon as Yoka carried Rin on her arm through the bustling streets of Saga towards one such teahouse, followed closely by her other servants.
Large paper lanterns hung from the eaves of this rowdy establishment. Even at a distance from the door, Rin could smell the sour mixture of sweat, sake and cheap perfume from inside. Her hands tightened on the lapels of her maid’s kimono.
She curled her lip in disgust.
‘We can go back to the castle,’ Yoka suggested.
‘No,’ Rin insisted stubbornly. ‘Let’s get this over and done with tonight.’
An attendant noticed the expensive fabric on Rin’s kimono and jostled through the crowd to greet her, offering up the best room in the house alongside those services.
Rin rejected him and asked to be seated in a discreet corner of the main hall with the common people.
Moments later, the attendant served the teahouse’s special brew but after he left, Rin poured the tea back into the pot.
Kii stared confusedly at the young mistress who was pretending to sip at her empty tea cup. ‘What’s wrong with the tea?’ she asked, pouring a cup for herself.
But after taking a sip for herself, she spat the drink back out into the cup and burst into a fit of violent coughing. She slammed the cup down onto the table and thumped on her chest.
Rin drank calmly from her empty cup. ‘Once you drink tea brewed by Yoka, you’ll never be able to stomach such cheap tea again.’
Reika looked around frantically, worried that a passing attendant of the teahouse might overhear this sharp criticism.
Suddenly, Yoka smiled at Rin. ‘What a coincidence. Let’s talk to that group of merchants across the room.’
The other servants looked at the maid with baffled faces. ‘What? Why?’
Rin lowered her cup and stood up. Yoka cleared a path for her young mistress and they made their way towards the merchants she pointed out.
There were three burly merchants seated at the low tea table the maid pointed out, their table cluttered with empty sake bottles that clinked every time one of them shifted in their seats.
The merchants stared at the little girl who sat down beside them without introducing herself. The little brat even demanded, ‘What is this rumour you speak of? Tell it to me.’
The biggest of the three seated next to her hiccupped and lowered his head to squint at her. ‘Who are you?’
The merchant at the opposite end of the table took a swig from his cup. ‘Saga’s doomed now. Not only are the bakeneko rampaging the city, talking dolls are showing up too.’ He sighed. ‘Perhaps it’s time to take my business farther up north, away from this nonsense.’
The burly merchant frowned. ‘I don’t think she’s a doll. She looks like a real person.’
‘The bakeneko have started appearing in the city?’ the talking doll demanded. ‘Tell me what you know.’
‘You haven’t heard?’ the merchant sitting on her other side drawled. ‘The bakeneko that was trying to kill the daimyo’s son is now killing people in the city.’
He reached out a thick, calloused hand to hold Rin’s soft wrist. Yoka caught the errant hand before it could touch her.
The sleazy merchant coughed and withdrew his hand, which now had red grip marks imprinted on it. ‘Just checking to see if she’s a ghost.’
Rin gave him a humourless smile.
‘You’ve heard about the daimyo’s son killing his Ryūzōji servant because the bakeneko said that man would kill him?’ the first burly merchant asked.
The young mistress nodded.
‘Well, there’s more than one bakeneko haunting the city now,’ the second merchant said. ‘It’s said that they are the other dead members of the Ryūzōji family and their target is anyone who supports the Nabeshima clan.’
‘They could simply be ordinary stray cats,’ Rin pointed out.
The third merchant cast a wary eye at Yoka, then slouched to be closer to the fragrant talking doll. ‘But we saw them with our own eyes. Cats slit from the throat to the stomach, as if a ghost has pulled itself out of the creature’s skin.’
Rin leaned back into Yoka and wrapped her arms around her. ‘Where did you see these bakeneko?’
The three merchants exchanged looks, their faces turning white.
Then, the second merchant farthest away retorted, his squinty eyes flickering nervously, ‘How would we know?’
Yoka, who had been silent the whole time, stifled a laugh. Her light-grey eyes glowed as she repositioned the young mistress on her lap.
In a lazy voice, she spoke for them, ’Because you were there to do business, but all you found was the corpse of a cats and the inhabitants of the place slaughtered.’
The corners of Rin’s mouth quirked up. ‘I’m not trying to make life difficult for you merchants. All you need to do is tell me where you found these cats.’