Chapter 7: That Shapeshifter, On Guard

A maid’s typical day began two hours before dawn.

Yoka switched the candles in the rooms and corridors with new ones, chopped firewood and drew water from the well. After that, it was time to start boiling dashi1Japanese word for broth and making noodles.

One of the souls she once consumed belonged to a talented ramen chef, so pulling the noodles into neat, thin strands took no time at all.

Yoka even made a few different varieties of noodles just in case the young mistress decided to be picky today.

After that, it was time to tend to the castle gardens to make them they’re presentable. Kii had plucked the vegetable garden bald recently, so today, the withered stems had to be removed and more seeds had to be planted.

The trees also need trimming and had to be watered before the young mistress woke up—there would be no time to run outside once Rin was awake.

As Yoka made her way to the wisteria pavilion, she heard movement by the guardhouse.

She tilted her head imperceptibly and enhanced her hearing to identify its source. The freeloaders were all asleep at this time, so there should be nobody else moving around in Shin-Karatsu Castle except for her.

A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Was today going to be another entertaining one?

Yoka finished trimming the vines and slowly moved on to the trees nearer the guardhouse. There was a shed beside the guardhouse that was filled with Yuzuru’s mechanical contraptions. It used to be the stables that housed the daimyo’s2Japanese feudal lord horses, but the young mistress hated animals, so it was turned into one large shed for storage.

The shadow of the shed cast by the rising sun was dark, but Yoka’s shapeshifter eyes could see every blade of grass that moved against the morning breeze.

A single intruder.

‘Why did you come alone, assassin-san?’ Yoka asked the shed.

The grass stilled.

‘There needs to be more of you if you want to have a chance of getting out alive.’

Yoka spun the gardening knife in her hand and flashed forward. Her short blade clashed with the extended length of a katana wielded in the nick of time.

She ducked and the samurai’s sword grazed through empty air.

‘Tch!’ The intruder brandished his katana once more and rushed towards Yoka.

Yoka threw her knife at him. It knocked the katana out of the intruder’s hand and pinned his cuff to the back wall of the shed.

The katana fell onto the grass with a dull thud.

Yoka bent down slowly and picked it up, holding the tip of it against the intruder’s neck. This intruder wasn’t like the rest. He wore the full armour of a samurai instead of the usual black garb of the other assassins.

Most importantly, there was a small Terazawa mon3a clan’s insignia engraved on the intruder’s breastplate.

She lowered the katana.

The samurai’s dark eyes flashed with anger. ‘What? You’re not going to kill me? Is this how you protect your daimyo? Pathetic!’

Yoka examined the person in front of her.

He was shorter than her by a full head and his helmet was too big for his head.

A boy pretending to be a man.

She bowed slightly. ‘Please forgive my rudeness. The young mistress is not awake yet.’

Yoka held the katana out to him, hilt first. He snatched the weapon back from her and spat, ’How useless!’

The maid tilted her head in askance.

‘You’re a servant of Lord Terazawa! You should be killing all intruders on sight. Why are you showing mercy instead of delivering the final blow?’

Yoka raised an eyebrow. Why was this intruder berating her? ’I can end your life anytime I want, little samurai, but I cannot raise you back from the dead if it turns out the young mistress wants to have a word with you.’

The little samurai sheathed his weapon and jabbed a finger at her. ‘I’m not a little samurai! My name is Shinji Tsuguru! I’m Terazawa Rin’s childhood friend.’

Just as she thought. This intruder was not one of the usual assassins sent by an enemy.

A qualified maid serving Lord Terazawa must be able to deal with unexpected occurrences like this.

Something like a childhood friend popping out of nowhere shouldn’t faze her at all. Yoka bowed lower this time. ’Nice to meet you, Tsuguru-dono. Let me escort you into the castle.’

And she led the way back to the castle keep.

Tsuguru stared in horror at the maid who casually turned her back on him.

’Don’t just turn your back on the enemy like that! Hey, come back! I’m teaching you how to protect Rin-chan properly!’

Yoka led the little samurai into Moon Gazing Hall and served him a cup of osmanthus tea.

Tsuguru wrinkled his nose. ‘You don’t have green tea?’

‘The young mistress prefers osmanthus tea when she wakes up.’

When he heard that, he shut up and quietly drank from his cup.

Yoka told him to pull the bell rope if he needed to summon her and excused herself to continue her morning routine.

For today’s breakfast, she prepared a nutritious ichiju-sansai4a Japanese meal that consists of one soup and three dishes breakfast of roasted saba fillet, beansprouts and sweet usuage with miso soup just as the freeloaders began to wake up.

To prevent any mishaps with the food, Yoka sent Kii to the market for fresh meat and fish with Reika before going to the young mistress’s bedroom with a pot of osmanthus tea.

Rin refused to wake up even after she was propped upright with a warm cup of tea in her hands. Her eyelashes fluttered shut and she grumbled about being mentally exhausted from having to see the faces of “those annoying old geezers” two days in a row.

Nevertheless, Yoka combed her hair while she sat in a daze and reported, ‘There is a visitor in the castle.’

Drowsy dark eyes opened wide with derision and she scowled fiercely. ‘Why have they come again?’

Yoka dressed her in a freshly pressed kimono. ‘It’s not the Nagasaki officials who have come,’ she said, ‘but a young samurai by the name of Shinji Tsuguru.’

‘Oh.’ Rin’s voice was dull, nonchalant but her fingers trembled ever so slightly as she placed her tea cup back onto the tray.

Yoka pretended not to notice. ’I’ve put him in Moon Gazing Hall for the time being. Will you eat breakfast with him?’

The young mistress sighed. ‘Bring him into the keep. We’ll eat in the White Crane Dining Hall.’

As Rin’s most trusted servant, this surprised her. ’In the room where your family used to eat meals together?’

Rin never ate her meals in that reconstructed dining hall because it was the place where her parents died. She never so much as walked down that corridor once since the castle had been rebuilt.

And now, not only was she saying she was going to eat there, she was also going to entertain a guest there?

Who was Shinji Tsuguru that she would make such an exception for him?

Rin’s ink-black eyes challenged Yoka to break etiquette to ask her that. Yoka smiled back mockingly. She wasn’t interested in things that had nothing to do with their oath.

The young mistress turned away abruptly and left the room, mumbling as she passed by, ‘He was just a family friend.’

No one important.

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