Chapter 1: That Shapeshifter, A Maid

She was trapped in the darkness, unable to move. Her wrists and ankles were chained to the ice-cold surface she found herself sitting on. Her legs were forced apart.

It’s an altar, she knew even though she couldn’t see.

There were red candles along the perimeter of the room, but she couldn’t make out the man standing in front of her. A languid song was being played on the shamisen1three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument. Each time the string was plucked, a chill ran down her spine.

She could hear her own harsh breathing, feel the violent thumping of her heart.

A pair of hands reached out to touch her. Rough fingertips trailed along the soft, white skin of her cheeks, down her neck and squeezed her thin shoulders.

She struggled even though she knew there was no escape.

Deft fingers untied her obi and kneaded her waist. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. The song of the shamisen continued, unperturbed. She struggled and more large, calloused hands reached out to grab her, forcing her to lie flat on the altar. They tore the rest of her clothes away.

Helpless tears leaked from the corners of her wide ink-black eyes.

Suddenly, there was a gust of cold air and the hands groping her vanished. A pair of soulless, light-grey eyes lit up the suffocating darkness.

Pale lips smiled and a pair of slender hands reached out to wipe away her tears. The smell of osmanthus filled the air and a familiar voice spoke, ‘Ojou-sama2polite form of master/mistress, it’s time to wake up.’

Terazawa Yin opened her eyes to see a tall, plain-faced maid pouring a cup of chrysanthemum tea into a white tea cup.

She closed her eyes, turned over and buried her head in the futon.

The maid put down a matching tea pot with a soft clink and waited for the wilful young mistress to get up on her own.

Eventually, the small figure dwarfed by the large futon sat up, eyes still blurred with sleep. The maid handed her the cup of tea and began to comb her long black hair pooling on the futon around her.

Yin was 13 years old but she looked much smaller, more like an 8 year old. Her skin was a pale parchment-white and her ink-black eyes were very large on her small doll-like face. All who saw her said it was a pity she hardly ever smiled, otherwise she would be the most beautiful girl in Kyūshū.

The maid helped her wash up, then dressed her in a black kimono patterned with blood-red spider lilies and a matching obi. Half her hair was bundled up in an elaborate flower on top of her head, secured by two sapphire pins, while the rest of it drifted loose like a dark ghostly veil around her.

‘Yoka,’ the young mistress called when she was dressed and fully awake. The maid who was two whole heads taller than her bowed slightly in response. ‘Has that thing been prepared?’

The corners of the maid’s lips curved up ever so slightly as she bowed deeper. ‘Yes, it has. I have placed it in your study.’

Yin turned her head away without a word and made a beeline for the study.

The keep of Karatsu Castle was five storeys high with two single-storey wings. The young mistress’s bedroom was right at the top, surrounded on four sides with sliding latticed doors that could be closed or opened depending on the season.

It used to be her parents’ bedroom before they were brutally murdered and their deaths covered up. Before the castle was burned down. Before she become daimyo3a Japanese feudal lord and rebuilt it.

The study was just below her room on the fourth floor, with a large window that overlooked the sea, in the same place her father’s study had been. Yin rebuilt Karatsu Castle exactly as she remembered it, but every room turned out larger and emptier than the home in her memories.

It was a totally different castle in the end.

One called “Shin-Karatsu Castle” instead of home.

Yin sat at the writing desk inside the study, her eyes drifting over the things on the table until she found what she was looking for.

A small glass phial filled with a purple liquid. She held it up, letting the sun bathe the transparent crystal with multi-coloured shards of reflected light. It was a totally different light compared to the red candles from her nightmare.

Yin shook the phial languidly, then closed her fist around it and stuffed it up the hidden pocket in her sleeve.

Yoka watched the young mistress from the doorway, the corners of her mouth curving up slightly at the sight.

Ink-black eyes met light-grey ones and narrowed.

Yoka remembered herself and lowered her gaze to the floor, saying with a placating tone, ‘Ojou-sama, breakfast is ready. Shall I bring it here for you?’

The young mistress sat down at the desk and picked up a document from the pile.

‘Not hungry. Go away.’

She picked up a brush and dipped it in ink.

‘I made your favourite. Kitsune udon.’

Her hand hovered above the empty page for a moment. Then, she lowered her brush and put down the document.

‘Fine. Bring it.’

The maid left quickly to hide the amusement in her eyes. As easy to coax as a child. The unease left behind by nightmares could be easily soothed with comfort food and warmth.

Yin didn’t mention it, but Yoka caught the haunted look when she first opened her eyes and knew she dreamed of what happened back then. But because Yin pretended to be unaffected, she also played along and pretended not to notice.

However, she was now a maid of the Terazawa daimyo, she could not just watch her young mistress struggle without doing anything, so she chose to distract her by making her favourite food.

Actually, there was a cook hired to prepare meals in the castle but this cook couldn’t make anything edible. Thus, the preparation of the meals was left to Yoka.

When Yoka returned to the kitchen with the empty bowl of udon, the cook was enjoying the ichiju-sansai4a Japanese meal that consists of one soup and three dishes breakfast that she had originally prepared for the young mistress.

‘…’

The woman who was supposed to be the castle’s “cook” saw the maid come in and gestured for her to come over. ‘Yoka-san, come and eat. It’s delicious! What a shame the young mistress doesn’t want to eat such a delicious meal.’

Yoka stared at this shameless cook who was enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labour.

She even poured herself a cup of sake and downed it in one breath. ‘Ahh! The sake you brewed yesterday is also really good.’

Why did the young mistress hire this freeloader instead of someone who can actually cook?

This shameless woman was called Kii. It was a name given to her by the young mistress when she was invited to be a cook at Shin-Karatsu Castle.

But being a cook didn’t suit her at all.

No matter how Yoka tried to teach her, everything she made was still inedible.

Kii picked at the sticky sweet saba fillet that no other servant would ever get to eat in their lifetime and asked, ‘Did the young mistress finish the udon?’

Yoka showed her the empty bowl.

Kii nodded appreciatively. ‘That’s good. I was going to make her my special Appetite Stimulating Soup—she’s not growing taller at all!’

If you fed her that, she might stop growing altogether,’ a male voice replied before Yoka could reject her idea.

Kii folded her arms. ‘Yuzuru! What do you mean by that?’

Another freeloader walked into the kitchen looking for something to eat. This man was Koji Yuzuru, the sole samurai guard the young mistress appointed to watch the castle.

He was probably the only samurai in all of Japan who couldn’t wield a sword.

‘You once made higashi5rice flour and sugar sweets for my birthday and said they were your special “Wide Awake Higashi”. When I took them out to eat the next day, I found five dead rats inside the cabinet. They died because they tried to eat your special higashi!’

‘What nonsense!’ Kii snorted as Yuzuru sat opposite her and poured a cup of sake for himself. ‘I ate that higashi all the time when I was a child and I’m perfectly fine! You’re probably just physically incapable on top of being unable to wield a sword.’

Yuzuru slammed his cup down on the table and growled, ‘What did you say?’

Yoka loomed over the two of them with a dangerous glint in her eyes, testing the impact of a big wooden spoon on the palm of one hand.

The kitchen was immediately peaceful again.

Kii smiled at Yuzuru and pushed her dishes across the table. ‘Have some food, incapable samurai.’ Yuzuru smiled back and picked up the sake bottle to pour Kii another cup. ‘Here, noisy old hag, have another drink.’

Yoka resisted the urge to hit the trouble-making freeloaders on the head with her wooden spoon.

‘The young mistress is meeting with the Nagasaki officials tonight, so we must prepare a banquet dinner for our guests.’ Her light-grey eyes flashed and she said, ‘The young mistress is counting on us to show our guests utmost hospitality so don’t cause any trouble.’

The two troublemakers chorused, ‘Understood!’

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