Chapter 13: That Shapeshifter, Speechless
Rin and Yoka stole out of the underground caves just as the sun was beginning to paint the twilight sky red.
When they arrived at the inn from before, the young mistress made a beeline for the futon and fell asleep almost immediately, leaving Yoka to settle their unfinished business alone.
She reported the failed Matsukura rebellion to the Shimabara daimyo1Japanese feudal lord at his castle and asked for men to be dispatched to escort the kidnapped children back to their homes.
Koriki Tadafusa followed his men and Yoka to the hidden caves of Mt. Unzen to take a look at the illegal child army for himself. She brought him all the way into the cavern where Matsukura Aoko resided and died.
The cavern had been converted into a graveyard that housed a dozen or so graves belonging to the Matsukura heir and his retainers.
The Shimabara daimyo stroked his grey beard and harrumphed to himself as he read the poorly-etched name on one of the grave markers: Fat Keisuke. ‘Lord Terazawa wrote these names herself, didn’t she? This girl’s handwriting still hasn’t improved even a little bit.’
A faint smile touched the corners of Yoka’s lips. She bowed politely and remained reserved. ‘I will encourage her to practice more.’
Lord Koriki waved his hand dismissively. He hadn’t meant to nag. After all, the little daimyo did him an immense favour this time around. ‘Is everything going well in Karatsu? How is she doing these days?’
The maid bowed again. ‘Koriki-sensei can be rest assured. My young mistress has stabilised her control over the domain and is doing well.’
‘That’s good, that’s good,’ the old daimyo of Shimabara murmured, nodding to himself somewhat absentmindedly.
When Yoka returned to the inn, she found Rin awake, writing a report to the shogun using the inn’s cheap stationary. She was only gone for a few hours—the sun had only just reached its zenith in the sky.
‘You’re back,’ Rin said without turning her head. ‘I’m hungry.’
Yoka straightened up the crumpled futon underneath the blankets. It was soaked with sweat. The young mistress had a nightmare while she was gone and couldn’t fall back asleep afterwards.
Now, she was avoiding eye-contact, pretending to be strong.
‘I’ve settled the matter of the kidnapped children with Lord Koriki. As you have ordered, he will not mention your involvement when giving an explanation to their respective daimyo.’
The young mistress continued to scribble away at her report.
‘Would Ojou-sama2polite form of young lady like to return home to have lunch or do you want to eat something here first?’
The brush paused, hovering over the paper. A drop of watery ink splattered onto the word she just wrote.
Bamboo slammed against inkstone. Parchment paper was crumpled up and burned to ashes.
Rin slept fitfully as soon as her head touched the futon and sank into a familiar, repulsive darkness filled with the scent of sweat. The scenes of that horrible place blended with the crowded mountain cave full of kidnapped children she was in not too long ago.
She was tossed to the ground in front of a group of men who reached out to her with their dirty, slimy hands. Someone grabbed her chin and tilted her face up, so she was staring into the beady eyes of the manservant, Keisuke.
After that, she woke up gasping, calling for Yoka, only to be met with peaceful, bustling silence.
Alone in the very room she was kidnapped from recently.
If the shapeshifter was here, she wouldn’t be so terrified for no reason—she’d be looked at mockingly for being weak. Rin told herself it was a good thing she sent that damned creature away but there was no way she’d be able to fall asleep again.
She successfully distracted herself by preparing a report of the incident for the shogun.
For a long time, she wrote mindlessly. After all, her discovery of Matsukura Aoko’s plot was a coincidence and not an order from above.
More importantly, the traitor was someone she knew, someone her father trusted.
Rin toyed with the idea of not reporting this.
Her agreement with the shogunate when her title was reinstated was that she become the shogun’s hidden dagger and eliminate those who posed a threat to Japan’s peace and prosperity upon his orders.
But Matsukura Aoko wasn’t a threat. He was a coward with no ambition or means to achieve his goals.
She stared blankly at that statement, inadvertently scribbled out onto the paper in front of her.
She thought of his unfamiliar smile, the expression on his face when General Seki tried to kill her for him, his panicked shout. She hadn’t meant to stand in his way.
Coward, she wrote again. Baka.
There other ways he could have obtained resources but he chose to make an oath with a good-for-nothing yōkai3supernatural entity.
If she had a choice, she would have–
And then, the shapeshifter returned.
She burned the papers she used. Yoka paid for both the room and the damages from the previous night before they left.
At the outskirts of Shimabara City, she morphed into a tengu4Japanese mythical demon with red skin, a long nose and large wings; renowned for their swordsmanship and powers over the wind, picked up her taciturn young mistress and returned to Shin-Karatsu Castle.
Yoka smelled the calamity before she saw the plume of black smoke rising from the castle keep.
They were only gone for two days but there was already an explosion in the kitchen?
‘I should have locked them up before we left,’ the shapeshifter muttered under her breath as they landed in the smoke-filled courtyard. Rin didn’t seem to care that a part of her castle was on fire.
It was a familiar sight, a common occurrence and a minor inconvenience—for the maid, not her.
It made her bad mood drift away like the smoke pouring out of the kitchen. She disappeared into the castle keep with a smirk and the words, ‘Bring lunch to my study.’
The maid, on the other hand, sighed aloud.
She walked into the eye of the storm to inspect the damage.
Reika and Kii were frantically beating at the fire with large wet towels. Yuzuru arrived with a second bucket of water and poured it over what’s left of the kitchen.
There was a loud sizzle and a cloud of white steam that set off a wave of choked coughing.
As the mist cleared, the freeloaders cheered, relieved that their efforts paid off…only to freeze into statues as Yoka’s piercing gaze and folded arms came into view.
What happened was easy enough for Yoka to figure out with a quick survey of the kitchen’s remains. Kii had taken the advantage of her absence to practice cooking something edible and failed.
Yuzuru had come in to show off his successfully completed mechanical broom and noticed Kii’s smoked salmon wasn’t just smoking—it was on fire.
Kii was sent back to her room to reflect on her actions. Chastised, she snuck two bottles of sake into her bosom and sulked off. Reika followed her worriedly and tried to retrieve the bottles of sake but the cook slammed the door in her face.
‘What’s the point of making me the cook if you’re not gonna let me cook?’ she yelled from inside. ‘Since I’m not needed here, I’m going to leave!’
There was a short pause.
‘…After I finish drinking this sake!’