Chapter 19: That Shapeshifter, Catching Cats (2)

The shopkeeper died with his eyes wide open. The whites of his eyes were blood red with fury and his hands were curled around the hilt of a weapon he might have swung at his attacker—only there was nothing within his grasp anymore.

The ornate pedestals inside the shop were bare, save for the carved brackets made to prop up the weapons on display. Not only did the assassins murder the man, they stole his goods as well.

A quick rummage through the desk in the backroom led Yoka to the identity of the shopkeeper.

His name was Ishibaru Hiroki.

He belonged to a family of renowned swordsmiths who were loyal vassals of the Ryūzōji clan. This shop was his family’s biggest showroom in the city.

Yoka picked up what looked like an accounts book and flipped through it. Hiroki’s most recent sale was a customised katana for Lord Nabeshima’s youngest son who had come of age.

‘How petty,’ she leered.

Yoka woke the young mistress up and reported everything that happened in two sentences, ’Reika and Kii found another bakeneko corpse this morning. The victim was a shopkeeper who sold a sword to Lord Nabeshima’s youngest son.’

Yin covered her head with the silk blanket. ’Did you bring back a cat?’ she asked, voice muffled.

‘Yes,’ the maid replied, pouring a cup of freshly-brewed osmanthus tea. ‘The cat breeder is a gardener from the castle.’

The young mistress opened her ink-black eyes and sat up. Her eyes narrowed.

‘That’s not the culprit. He doesn’t earn enough money to pay mercenaries to do his dirty work. There’s probably someone more powerful behind him.’

Yoka hummed in agreement. She dressed the young mistress in a dark blue kimono with silver cloud patterns and combed her black hair into a neat and simple bun.

‘What are your orders for today, Ojou-sama?’

Yin smiled.

In the outer room, the young mistress found her servants not causing trouble for once.

Somehow, they had been tamed by the white cat the maid brought back. All of them sat around the table, petting and stroking their fluffy new master, murmuring soft pleasantries.

‘…’

Reika noticed her arrival first and stood up to bow.

The others reluctantly dragged their gaze away from the cat and greeted the young mistress as well.

Yin stared at the creature sprawled on a silk cushion brought from home. Its fluffy tail waved languidly as it stared back at Yin with clear blue eyes.

‘You all like this cat?’ she asked abruptly.

Kii picked the cat up and held it out to Yin. ‘Look at how cute it is!’ she gushed. ‘Ojou-sama, can we keep it?’

The young mistress took a step back, away from the cat. She tucked her hands behind her back. ‘Feed it the fake message I’ve prepared and kill it with poison,’ she said in a dull voice.

Kii’s smile faltered. Her face fell. ‘Ojou-sama.’

Yin met Kii’s pleading gaze with her emotionless ink-black eyes. ‘Why did you get attached to it? You know we need its corpse to summon the mercenaries.’

Without another word, she sat down at the table that had become the cat’s nest.

Yoka removed the silk cushion and wiped all traces of the cat from the table. ‘Get back to work,’ she told the others softly.

One by one, the servants retreated into the side room with the cat.

Yoka served breakfast.

Yin ate stiffly, her chopsticks moving, but her mind a thousand ri1Japanese unit for distance, 1 ri is approx. 3.9km away.

The maid knelt beside the young mistress quietly. Although she seemed attentive, she was actually listening to the servants whispering in the side room.

‘Don’t you think Ojou-sama is being unnecessarily cruel today?’

‘You’re the one behaving weirdly. It’s just a cat. We can always get another one.’

‘Hah, you’re so bad at acting! Admit it, you want to keep Neko-chan too.’

‘So what if I do? Ojou-sama needs us to kill Neko-chan to find the assassins, so we just have to do it.’

‘I know that, it’s just…she promised I’ll never need to poison an innocent person if I followed her.’

‘… Neko-chan is a cat, not a person.’

‘I know that!’

‘…’

‘What Reika said! Neko-chan is an ambiguous case!’

Night fell.

Lights were put out one by one until all the paper windows of the inn darkened.

A shadow crept to the front door, slid it open and dropped a bundle just outside. The door slid shut again.

Half an hour later, a night watchman walked down the street. He passed the inn and walked down the length of the road.

As soon as his back was turned, a figure appeared in front of the inn and picked up the bundle by the door.

There was a glint of a knife followed by a sticky squelch.

After some time, the figure vanished.

When it reappeared, there were two of them, scaling the back of the inn like soundless shadows of the moon.

They reached the top floor of the building and hung there, listening to the almost inaudible sound of breathing from within the room.

One of the figures gestured to the other. The other nodded back.

Then, they opened the paper windows simultaneously and jumped inside.

There was only one person sleeping inside this large bedroom and she was tucked under a luxurious silk blanket with only her flowing black hair spread out on an osmanthus-scented pillow.

The assassins crept up to the sleeping girl silently.

One of them pulled back the blanket to reveal a plain-faced woman sleeping underneath and stabbed a poisoned needle into her neck.

The woman opened her eyes. They were an unusual colour, a light-grey that seemed to glow in the dark.

Yoka smiled.

She grabbed the assassin’s wrist before he could retract it and dislocated his hand with a quick twist. Her leg swung out and kicked him behind the knee.

The man let out a muffled groan under his mask.

The other assassin pulled out a kunai2metal throwing knife and attacked her. She quickly parried with a similar kunai pulled out of the first assassin’s thigh sheath.

They exchanged a few blows. Metal rang out against metal, but from a distance it sounded like tinkling wind chimes.

Yoka wield the kunai with more ease than the assassin. Each strike came faster and harder than the one before. Soon, the assassin couldn’t match her blows and was forced to evade.

Finally, she feinted a move to lure him in and easily plunged the kunai into the assassin’s shoulder. He let out a pained grunt and staggered backwards.

Blood spilled out onto the floor.

The two assassins glanced at each other and retreated to the window.

They threw a smoke bomb to shield their escape, but Yoka could still seem them through the smoke, running down a nearby alley with soundless steps.

She morphed into a golden eagle and took flight.

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