Chapter 32: That Shapeshifter, Watching
Shinji Makoto was brought over to the Magistrate’s Office for the Imperial Commissioner and Akihiko to interrogate him.
Tsuguru followed along, his expression pinched and indecipherable. He remained silent as he watched his uncle being questioned about the murder of Nobuyuki, and then about the deaths of the two samurai guards before that.
It wasn’t until Akihiko began to ask about the covering up of his crime by beheading the two guards and taking away their katanas for the ruse of a kataki-uchi that Tsuguru exploded.
He slammed his hands on the table in front of his uncle, his chest heaving with anger. ‘How could you?! Your brother, my father, was a samurai! You’re a blacksmith yourself! You should know how sacred the katana is to the samurai, yet you–!’
The tears Tsuguru had been holding back streamed down his face. He quickly wiped them away and stalked out of the room, slamming the shoji door shut with a loud bang behind him.
Yoka sneaked a peek at Rin’s expression. Her eyes had followed the young samurai as he left the room and now lingered on his shadow through the translucent screen on the door.
Her brow was furrowed and her lips were pursed in reluctant resignation.
Did she regret turning Tsuguru’s uncle in just like that? Or was she upset about having exposed his uncle’s hidden schemes with his help?
The young mistress noticed her staring and scowled. She tiptoed and pinched the cheeks of her plain-faced maid. ‘Why are you looking at me like that, eh Yoka?’
Her light-grey eyes glowed. ’I was worried about you.’
‘Tch!’ Rin scoffed and crossed her arms. ‘You’re probably wondering if I feel sorry for Tsuguru.’
Yoka lowered her eyes. ’Ojou-sama is wise, indeed.’
‘I’m not. I was just thinking about how similar we are.’ She tilted her head so long black hair flowed down her shoulder like a dark river. ‘Remember my father’s friend, Matsukura Aoko, who was raising a child army behind our backs? We killed him in the end.’
Yoka hummed in response. Of course, she had forgotten him already. She killed so many humans in her lifetime, how could she have remembered that small fry?
Shinji Makoto was quick to give up the name of his foreign client to the Imperial Commissioner and the story of how they met.
‘I routinely fix the hinges and locks of the warehouses at Dejima, so when the new guns were being unloaded from the Dutch ships, I caught a glimpse of it. One of the foreigners noticed I was interested and showed it to me, boasting about how the flintlock could revolutionise the way we defended our country.’
The blacksmith’s vacant gaze wandered over to Rin for a moment. ‘Because I was born frail and weak, unable to jump and run like normal children, much less wield a katana, I couldn’t become a respected samurai like my older brother. The only weapon I could use for an extended period of time was the gun.’
He laughed to himself and continued, ’Yet, even then, the matchlock guns our samurai used were heavy and required some measure of strength to be useful in practice. So I thought, if I could find a way to make them lighter and quieter and easier to hold…’
His voice faltered. ‘Perhaps even someone like me could become a samurai.’
Makoto spread his hands and shrugged at the Imperial Commissioner. ‘That’s why I came to Nagasaki and trained as a blacksmith. All in the hopes that one day, I’d have a weapon I can wield easily and become a samurai just like the rest of my family.
‘But realising this dream proved to be too much for me,’ he sighed. ‘Guns were not a samurai’s preferred weapon, so no one was interested in improving their design.
‘It wasn’t until I met that enthusiastic foreigner again at the teahouse and learned his name—Jan-Willem—that I learned more about the development of guns in his country. I shared my findings with him and he taught me about how his people made guns.’
He paused for a moment here, deep in thought for a moment. Akihiko was jumpy because he could see that Rin was getting restless as the interrogation dragged on, so he knocked his knuckles on the table and urged Makoto to finish up his account.
The Imperial Commissioner pushed his untouched cup of tea across the table for the man to moisten his throat. The blacksmith murmured his thanks and drank. After that, he continued, ‘Later on in the night, Willem off-handedly said he hoped someone would make a silent gun because a gun like that would sell for a lot of money. So, I joked if I achieved such a feat, he should share his profits with me.’
With a wry smile, Makoto said, ‘A week later, he asked if I had made any progress and shared some of his ideas. That’s when I realised he was serious, so I began working on it diligently. If I could make a fortune from selling my guns to Willem, I’d be able to afford the more expensive, lightweight metals to make my dream a reality and I wouldn’t have to rely on my sister-in-law’s family for resources anymore.’
Rin sent some of Akihiko’s doshin with Commissioner Inoue to arrest the foreigner at Dejima. He would be imprisoned along with Makoto and the two would be executed together.
As Tsuguru’s uncle was led out of the room, he turned to Rin and said, ‘Tsuguru had nothing to do with this, so don’t hold it against him. As his fianceé–’
The young mistress interrupted, ‘I won’t, because he and I have nothing to do with each other.’
The lanky old man had a puzzled look on his face. ‘But you like him,’ he said with a hoarse whisper. ‘Nii-san told me so.’
‘The ones who arranged our betrothal are already dead,’ Rin replied.
He laughed depressingly to himself as Akihiko took him away.
Once Rin and Yoka were the only ones left in the room, she turned to the shapeshifter and asked, ‘Daan Vandervort was ojii-san’s real client, wasn’t he?’
‘How did Ojou-sama know that?’
The young mistress lifted her chin. ‘Jan-Willem’s ‘joke’ about the silent gun was clearly intentional. He approached Shinji Makoto with a purpose from the very beginning. It seems as though ojii-san realised that while he was telling his story. Jan-Willem is Vandervort’s scapegoat.’
Her ink-black eyes darkened. ‘Only, I thought shapeshifters can only take on the form of a human they have devoured. If the real Jan-Willems doesn’t exist anymore, then the Imperial Commissioner will arrest Vandervort. It can’t be that it doesn’t know that.’
Yoka smiled blandly. ‘Daan Vandervort is a unique shapeshifter. He doesn’t feed on the forms of creatures—he only takes their knowledge and memories and leaves a shell behind.
‘My guess is that the Jan-Willems that Shinji Makoto met was Daan Vandervort all along, but the two look similar enough to you Japanese people that he wouldn’t be able to tell them apart even if he met the real Jan-Willems one day.’
Rin scowled. ‘Aren’t there only seventy-seven of you? Why are there so many shapeshifters appearing in Japan one after another?’
Yoka’s light-grey eyes glowed with amusement. She knelt beside her young mistress and held her pale, white hand up to her lips. ‘That’s because everyone wants to meet you, Terazawa Rin. To see what the prey that caught the attention of the almighty Seventy-Seven looks like.’