Chapter 18: That Shapeshifter, Catching Cats (1)
At dawn, Yoka left Yuzuru behind to guard the sleeping young mistress and went hunting for cats in the city with the other two servants.
The two of them were in charge of investigating every building in the surrounding district while Yoka searched the rest of the city.
‘Remember, don’t act on your own. Return to the inn and report the location to me later,’ she instructed. ‘I’ll handle the rest.’
The other two nodded and they parted ways.
Yoka waited for the two to disappear down the street before she turned towards the castle.
‘The dead cats first appeared inside Saga Castle,’ the young mistress told her last night, when they were preparing for bed. ‘So, start investigating from there. I think the cats are being bred inside the castle.’
Her rationale was this:
The culprit chose an incident inside the castle—the most inaccessible place in Saga—to start spreading the rumours, instead of using the many other illicit affairs happening inside the city to spurn the daimyo.
Most likely, he was someone who knew about what happened inside the castle and had access to the servants there.
Therefore, he was someone who lived inside the castle.
It would be extremely difficult to bring dead cats inside, especially after Lord Nabeshima ordered all the cats in the castle to be disposed of, since everything brought into the castle keep had to be checked by the guards at the gates.
So, if the cats were not being bred inside the castle, then Rin said the culprit was one of the guards at the gate.
‘Have you guessed this from the start?’ Yoka had asked her.
The young mistress nodded.
‘Why didn’t you tell Lord Nabeshima and have him search the castle for the cats immediately? We would have been able to get catch the culprit immediately.’
Rin stared at her like she was looking at a fool. ‘Why would I do that? I want to capture the secret mercenary group for myself.’
As a shapeshifter, Yoka had all the power in the world and could use force to solve most of her problems.
She had never needed to manipulate others to get her way, so watching humans struggle and climb over one another to achieve their goals has always been her favourite past-time.
Rin was one of these people.
But at the same time, she was very different.
This young girl only wanted one thing and was determined to die for it, refusing to settle for the happiness that was within her reach—money, strength, acclaim—now that she could access a shapeshifter’s power.
Yoka couldn’t wait to obtain Rin’s twisted mind for herself.
She flashed down the streets that were beginning to stir with life, unable to wipe the smirk off her face.
The shapeshifter raced through the neat rows of large residences belonging to noblemen, the samurai village’s barracks and offices, towards one of the castle’s side gates used by servants.
The nondescript face of the maid she used as Yoka meant that she didn’t need to shift to a different form in order to enter the castle.
All she needed was a tsuko-tegata1wooden passport used as an identity card in Edo Japan that would get her through this side gate.
Yoka simply waited for a group of servants to pass by and pickpocketed one of them.
Then, she crossed the moat and approached the gate.
Saga Castle had been built at the turn of the century, after Nabeshima Naoshige established himself as daimyo of Hizen Province.
Before that, it was a fortified village for the Ryūzōji clan called Muranaka Castle.
The guards barely glanced at the tsuko-tegata she held out and waved her through. Yoka glanced up at the five-storey main keep in the distance with its grey-blue roof tiles and wood panel accents.
She had entered that keep with the young mistress on their first day in Saga and noticed that there were multiple patrols of guards lurking around at all times.
No point starting her search there. The shapeshifter decided to begin from the stables and livestock area nearby.
The buildings that housed the livestock could be said to be slipshod in comparison to the majestic main keep that peeked out over the castle walls. The same grey-blue roof tiles were used, but the unpainted wooden walls were clearly built out of leftover wood pieced together.
Yoka picked up a basket of feed from a half-opened storeroom and walked about as if she was a servant sent to feed the animals.
She smiled at the two young servants who were doing the same thing and mimicked their actions. The younger one noticed her and gave her a nod. There were no cats here, so she left quickly.
All the servants she bumped into were bustling about quietly.
Almost as if someone had forbidden them from speaking to one another.
Everyone focused on the task at hand and even avoided eye contact where possible. It made the atmosphere exceptionally tense and uncomfortable. Normally, the servants would gossip with one another as they worked.
Sometimes, there would even be laughter and jokes.
But because the bakeneko rumours were “coming true”, Yoka guess that the daimyo banned the servants from talking about anything unrelated to their work.
Whatever the reason, it was convenient for her purposes.
Not having to make small talk with anyone meant it was less likely the other servants would find out she was not one of them.
Moreover, the silence allowed her to hear a faint meow with her supernatural senses.
The shapeshifter smiled wryly. The young mistress is right again.
Yoka made her way over to the barracks by the main gate of the castle. This was where the gatekeepers lived when they were not on duty.
Along the way, she passed by a garden with a simple pavilion in the middle of a sea of flowers.
As she walked down the stone pavement leading to the pavilion, Yoka glimpsed a wooden structure hidden between the trees.
A storage shack was built amidst the pine and camphor trees that guarded the castle’s earthen walls. Piles of decorative rock structures filled the space inside while gardening equipment lined the interior walls.
Yoka pushed at one section of the interior walls. It gave way to a narrow space from which glowing feline eyes stared back at her.
The maid returned to the inn where she was greeted with an anxious torrent of words and frantic gestures.
The two freeloaders she had sent on a wild goose chase somehow stumbled upon an actual goose.
Two streets away, Kii and Reika found the corpse of a dead cat. They had ignored her instructions to report back first and entered the shop on their own.
But unlike the previous three locations given by the merchants from before, the shopkeeper who was preparing to open his shop hadn’t been killed yet.
They showed him the dead cat and convinced him to leave with them quickly but the man insisted that the swords he was selling was more important than his life and he would never let them fall into the hands of cheap assassins.
‘So we had no choice but to come back here for backup,’ Kii explained. ‘But this idiot Yuzuru isn’t of any use because he faints at the sight of a sword.’
Yuzuru retorted, ‘In the first place, I was supposed to stay here and watch over Ojou-sama! You’re the idiot who went investigating when you were only supposed to report back what you found!’
As Kii began to argue back, Reika tugged at Yoka’s arm, her eyes flickering with agitation and worry.
There was no time to lose. The maid placed a fluffy white bundle in Yuzuru’s arms with the order, ‘Take care of it.’ and left the two squabbling freeloaders behind.
Reika led the way to the swordsmith’s shop, but Yoka knew it was too late as soon as they arrived.
There was no breath of life inside the shop anymore.