Chapter 9: That Shapeshifter, Collecting Clues

In the middle of the day, people in the streets of Karatsu City caught sight of a tengu1Japanese mythical demon with red skin, a long nose and large wings; renowned for their swordsmanship and powers over the wind with raven-black wings fly over the city with a doll-like beauty in its arms.

Those who saw it were spooked and began to panic while those who only heard about it scoffed and said that anyone who claimed to have seen such a thing in broad daylight must have drank too much the night before.

Yoka preferred shifting into the form of a prehistoric golden eagle when she had to run long-distance errands in the daytime to avoid causing chaos among the ordinary people, but this time, there was no other way.

The young mistress was travelling with her and she insisted on getting there as fast as possible. So Yoka chose to shift into a tengu she had once devoured because it was annoying.

They headed towards Kyuragi Village, a small sprawling settlement along the banks of the Kyuragi River.

This village sat on the southern edge of Karatsu Domain, near a border checkpoint guarded by local samurai and inspectors who would check the identification papers of those travelling in and out of the domain.

Rin ordered Yoka to land in the courtyard of this checkpoint tower.

A samurai guard came running and was startled to see that the doll-like girl who was held captive in the arms of the winged creature now accompanied by a plain-faced maid with her head lowered.

His mouth opened and closed like one of Yuzuru’s broken inventions.

Rin took the initiative to speak first, ‘I want to see your captain.’

The guard regained his senses and bowed deeply. ‘I’ll get him for you right away, daimyo-sama2Japanese feudal lord!’ He hurried away.

The young mistress looked up at the shabby building that appeared derelict at first glance. This was the southern checkpoint of her domain. It was quite pathetic.

But she hadn’t prioritised reinforcing it because not many people used this checkpoint in the mountains to get in and out of Karatsu.

Sure enough, this little oversight led to such–

‘Do you feel responsible?’ Yoka asked as the young mistress became increasingly displeased with what she saw.

Soulless grey eyes bore into her ink-black ones for a moment.

Rin turned away. ‘I don’t care about the fate of these children. It’s just…if I had set up the trap here, I could have scared the rats out of hiding.’

The corner of Yoka’s mouth quirked up. ‘If it was so easy to catch them, I would have brought them before you already.’

Rin glared at her maid.

A loud voice called out from the checkpoint tower, ‘Little Daimyo! It’s good to see you.’ The guard had returned and was trailing behind his tall samurai captain.

‘Address me properly, Kotaru Sanjo,’ Rin reproached him. The armoured man removed his helmet and bowed deeply in greeting, grinning broadly at her.

‘You didn’t tell me you were coming so I am ill-prepared for your arrival. Where’s your horse?’

Rin pointed to her maid. ‘Here.’

A question mark appeared next to Captain Kotaru’s head.

The young mistress folded her arms. ‘I’m not here to chat. There’s been an incident. I need to know who came through here last week.’

Captain Kotaru led her into the checkpoint tower.

Rin sat down on the osmanthus zabuton3large, flat cushions for sitting/kneeling on the floor Yoka brought from the castle in the captain’s seat at the front of the checkpoint tower’s empty main hall.

The nervous guard who had called the captain for them brought tea on a tray. Yoka intercepted him and tasted it before asking to be led to their kitchen.

He became flustered and apologised repeatedly.

The maid assured him that it wasn’t his fault.

Rin pursed her lips as Yoka left with the guard. The checkpoint not only lacked manpower, but also had no servants. It seemed that all the chores were handled by the samurai guards themselves.

Captain Kotaru gathered all the samurai who were on duty last week and assembled them in front of Rin.

Rin stared at the six samurai guards and two inspectors in front of her and asked drily, ‘This is everyone who works here, isn’t it?’

Kotaru Sanjo puffed out his chest and slapped the back of the samurai nearest to him. ‘That’s right! This is the elite squad I’ve gathered for you, Little Daimyo.’

The “elite squad” in front of her was made up of two scrawny young scribes who appeared to have never worked in the sun before and a bunch of middle-aged “samurai” with pot bellies.

Two of the samurai had worn their armour wrongly and the rest didn’t bring their swords with them. Clearly, they were out-of-luck merchants her samurai captain had conned into his service.

Rin sighed. ‘You don’t have records of who passes through the checkpoint, do you?’

Captain Kotaru grinned sheepishly. ‘We don’t. But my elite samurai have very good memories! They can describe all the people who have come by last week.’

A dark look spread across Rin’s porcelain face.

The two scrawny inspectors who had been pushed forward to give their report began to tremble.

Captain Kotaru had to prod them a second time before the one on the left opened his mouth to speak.

There was about 50 people who passed through the checkpoint last week—they couldn’t give the young mistress an exact number. Most were merchants hurrying to make deliveries or monks on a pilgrimage to Karatsu Shrine for the Haru Matsuri4Spring Festival: held from the end of March till the end of April after rice has been planted to pray for a bountiful harvest and conduct Shinto purification rites.

All of them had legitimate identification papers with authentic seals, so the inspectors didn’t think much before letting them through.

‘Was any one of them headed for Tenzan Village?’

’N-Not that we know of…’ the other inspector stammered under the young mistress’s intense gaze.

One of the samurai guards sniggered and nudged the person next to him, ‘Hey, remember that talkative monk who was headed for Kagami Shrine?’

The samurai beside him snorted. ‘The idiot who kept insisting that the direction the rice fields were in relation to the villages they belonged to would dictate whether or not their harvest would be favourable this year?’

A samurai behind them interrupted, ‘He’s lying. He said Tenzan and Kyuragi would suffer this year but Tenzan Village farms forest berries and Kyuragi is a fishing village! Don’t pay any attention to his boasting.’

‘He’s probably from one of those weird foreign cults in Nagasaki.’

 the inspector on the left mumbled.

‘But he came with a group of merchants from Kokura Domain,’ the inspector on the left mumbled, ‘and there was nothing wrong with his papers.’

Rin narrowed her eyes.

‘What about the merchants he came with? Where were they headed?’

‘They didn’t pass through the checkpoint,’ Captain Kotaru added helpfully. ‘Just dropped him off here and moved on south. I remember because they were blocking the way with their large procession of palanquins.’

Rin felt like she was going to explode.

‘Which part of that isn’t suspicious at all?!’

Yoka told them about the kidnapping incidents and Captain Kotaru protested immediately, ‘How were we supposed to know?’

Rin knew it wasn’t their fault. The two villages didn’t report these kidnappings out of the fear that people would think their villages were cursed since the incidents happened so close to the Haru Matsuri, so Kotaru and his men wouldn’t have known.

And even if they had known about it, they didn’t have enough manpower to resolve the situation.

But she was feeling very irritated and annoyed with herself.

She stuck out her chin and refused to apologise. ‘Describe the monk and head merchant for me,’ she ordered instead. ‘Yoka, draw portraits of these two people.’

The samurai struggled to describe the monk because his face was very ordinary, much like Yoka’s but male. So when Yoka completed his portrait, Captain Kotaru slapped the table and exclaimed excitedly, ‘That’s him! That’s him! That’s exactly what he looks like! You’re a good artist, Yoka-san!’

Rin snorted. What’s so amazing about a yōkai5supernatural entity drawing a picture of an ordinary person with only vague descriptions?

She used such nondescript appearances to blend in with humans herself. If she couldn’t do this much, then what was the point of having this shapeshifter on her side?

It didn’t cross her mind that Yoka knew who the monk was until much later.

When the maid completed the sketch of the head merchant, Rin’s annoyance fizzled away. She stared at the familiar-looking portrait in front of her and felt faint.

‘This is Matsukura Aoko, son of the previous daimyo of Shimabara Domain,’ she said.

The previous daimyo of Shimabara Domain was the real cause of the Shimabara Rebellion. Matsukura Katsuie oppressed the people and overtaxed them to build a grand castle for himself, which eventually resulted in the outbreak of the rebellion across all of Hizen Province6an old province in the area of Saga and Nagasaki prefectures.

After the rebellion was quelled, the shogun beheaded him right away to keep the other daimyo in check.

The Matsukura clan was then evicted from Shimabara and sent to Kokura.

Captain Kotaru frowned. ‘Wasn’t Little Daimyo a baby when the rebellion happened? Why are you able recognise Matsukura Katsuie’s son?’

The young mistress gave him a sardonic smile. ‘My father tried to help the Matsukura family after they moved to Kokura and occasionally brought me along. Matsukura Aoko was his good friend and they were brothers of the same swordsmaster.’

Rin narrowed her eyes.

‘But it seems my father was the only one who thought so.’

Rin and Yoka left the border checkpoint soon after. Captain Kotaru and his “elite squad” wanted to help scour the nearby mountains and forests for the suspicious caravan of merchants but Rin rejected his help.

‘The shogun told me to be your sword when he gave me to you,’ Kotaru Sanjo insisted. ‘Who’s going to slay the enemy for you when you catch him?’

The young mistress pointed at Yoka. ‘She will.’ The maid picked her up and Rin left Captain Kotaru with these words, ‘Train your elite squad to be as good as my maid while I’m gone.’

Extra Scene

Captain Kotaru: …

Samurai Guard 1: Was that an insult?

Samurai Guard 2: That was an insult.

Inspector 1: Does the captain know it’s an insult?

Samurai Guard 2: I don’t think so.

[Captain Kotaru thinks about Rin’s words for half a day.]

Captain Kotaru: That little daimyo brat insulted me!

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One week after Yin 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.

Yin 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. Koriki-daimyo7Japanese feudal lord 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 Yin into a black and yellow patterned kimono.

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

‘Or are the feelings mutual?’

Yin 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.’

Yin 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 Yin 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 bugyō8administrative 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 Yin 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!’ Yin 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 Yin’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 Yin-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 Yin 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 Yin.

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?’

Yin’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.’

Yin 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.’

Yin 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.

Yin 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 Yin 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 shachihoko9mythical 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, Yin 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 Terazawa-daimyo.

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