Chapter 5: That Shapeshifter, Cleaning Up
Hirayama’s eyes flashed. He straightened up and folded his arms across his muscled chest. ‘Don’t accuse your senpai1someone who is of higher experience, hierarchy, level, or age blindly. You might be our superior in name, but we have been Nagasaki’s administrative officials for many years. Why would we take part of the shogun’s tribute for ourselves when we have a share of the foreign imports?’
Since Japan’s borders were closed to foreigners, trade with the rest of the world was confined in Nagasaki.
Everything that entered the country had to be approved by the shogunate before it could be distributed to the public. As Nagasaki officials overseeing this process, they were also gifted foreign goods that the rest of the people could not obtain for themselves.
This benefit alone should have been enough to keep these aristocrats content with their lot.
But people in power were rarely ever truly satisfied. Rin curled her lip.
Watching the best of the foreign imports go to the shogun year in year out while they received the leftovers must have made their hearts restless for more.
They might have once been loyal officials, but now, they were disillusioned with envy.
Rin nodded her head at Hirayama. ’Senpai is right. Rin was too impulsive this time. I hope senpai will pardon me.’ Her ink-black eyes lacked sincerity.
As if it was planned in advance, the maid knocked on the door and chose this moment to announce the arrival of more sake.
The young daimyo rose from her seat. ’Let me serve you some more sake as an apology.’
She took a pitcher of sake from the tray in the maid’s hands and knelt beside Hirayama, tilting her head to blink innocently at the bristling official.
‘Senpai will accept my apology, right?’
Without waiting for a response, she filled Hirayama’s cup and offered it to him with both hands. While leaning over, the side of her body brushed against him.
Hirayama grunted, shifting his gaze away from the fragrant girl pressed up against him. He took the cup. ‘Since you’re sincere, I’ll let you off this time.’
As he downed the cup, Rin asked, ‘Then, can senpai let me in on your embezzlement scheme?’
Hirayama choked on the sake halfway down his throat and began coughing violently. He slammed the empty cup on the table and glared at her. ‘You–’
The young daimyo2Japanese feudal lord tilted her head in askance. ‘You won’t?’
Rin reached into her sleeve once more and grasped the glass phial. In one smooth motion, she covered it with a handkerchief and tipped it over, then replaced it inside her sleeve again.
She offered it to Hirayama. ‘Here,’ she said sweetly, ‘to wipe your mouth.’
The big, burly man accepted the handkerchief with a scowl and wiped his face with the faintly osmanthus-scented silk.
Yoshimoto laughed on the other side of Hirayama. ‘What are you talking about, Terazawa-san?’
Rin turned her intense black gaze on him. ‘Am I wrong?’
Nakatani frowned. ‘Haven’t we said so already? There is no embezzling going on. It’s an administrative mistake.’
The young daimyo seemed genuinely confused, so he continued, ‘We’ll find the subordinate who gave you this fake copy of the warehouse records and punish him severely for playing a trick on you.’
‘Why would he trick me?’ she asked.
Teshima cleared his throat. ‘You’re so young. It’s not easy for the people to accept that you’re the new bugyō3administrative magistrate appointed over Nagasaki’s administration.’
Rin held out her hand to retrieve her handkerchief but Hirayama crushed it within his fingers, his eyes narrowed.
Rin met his suspicious gaze calmly and lowered her head. ‘Sorry, senpai. I misunderstood again.’
She poured him another cup of sake. ‘Please accept my apology once more.’
Hirayama grunted. ‘It’s not your fault for misunderstanding. You lost your parents so early and had to take up the mantle of daimyo and bugyō all of a sudden. It’s remarkable that you’ve survived thus far.’
The faint smile bloomed on the young daimyo’s face didn’t reach her eyes. ‘I also think so.’
The tense atmosphere in Moon Gazing Hall relaxed and the five men began to chat idly about their various difficulties running the office at Nagasaki.
After all, this was a gathering meant to foster goodwill amongst them, so Rin pretended to listen to what they were saying.
As the sun set and the moon began to rise, Rin cut off the advice Teshima was giving her about being a good support to the older officials who had been doing their job for much longer.
‘It’s my bed time,’ she said. ‘Let’s end the festivities here for today.’
Yoshimoto laughed, his face bright red from drinking too much. ‘Ah, that’s right, our Rin-san is still a little girl. Let’s go, let’s go—she needs her beauty sleep.’
Somehow, she went from being called Terazawa-san to the more informal Rin-san. Clearly, none of them took her seriously at all.
Rin pulled the bell rope to call Yoka in and watched them stagger to their feet, each one more drunk than the next.
Ink-black eyes met soulless light-grey ones. ‘Escort them back to Nagasaki,’ she ordered. ‘They look like they’ll fall off their horses halfway.’
Hirayama straightened his back and widened his eyes, pretending to be perfectly sober even as his head throbbed fiercely. ‘No need. We’ve drunk more than this before.’
‘That’s right.’ Kuwahara nodded blankly. ‘We restrained ourselves this time because there’s a little girl with us.’
Rin let out a derisive laugh. There was no need to pretend to be friendly anymore.
These drunk officials were in no frame of mind to notice.
‘Tch! What fools!’ she spat, watching them stumble out of the room. Kii handed her the damp cloth Yoka told her to bring along, and Rin began to vigorously brush down the side of her body that had come in contact with Hirayama hours ago.
Yoka instructed Kii to clean up Moon Gazing Hall while she escorted the men to the entrance of Shin-Karatsu Castle where they left their horses.
When they had mounted their steeds safely, Yoka handed each of them a bright square lantern and sent them on their way. ’Have a safe journey home,’ she said with a deep bow.
Five horses clip-clopped their way down the coastal path with their drunken burdens, disappearing into the inky darkness.
There was a full moon tonight and the fresh sea air helped to dispel the effects of the copious amounts of sake they inhaled and brought them back to life.
Only Hirayama remained in a stupor. His head felt as heavy as Mt. Fuji and waves of nausea continued to assault him as his horse bounced him up and down.
Nakatani was the first to speak. ‘The child is a little reckless but she listens well.’
Yoshimoto smiled. ‘She’s very pretty.’
Kuwahara narrowed his eyes at the full moon in the sky. ‘With a bit of guidance, she can be a good smoke screen for us.’
Teshima slouched on his horse with a sigh. ‘What an ill-fated child…’
Only Hirayama was silent.
Even as the others began to discuss whether they successfully fooled Terazawa Rin, he ignored all conversation, his back rigid, eyes fixed on the darkness ahead.
His vision was getting hazy and an uncomfortable heat began to make him sweat despite the cool evening breeze.
Teshima called his name at some point, but he only grunted and said something about being tired.
Yoshimoto yawned at the word “tired” and the others finally lapsed into silence for the rest of the journey.
Hirayama wondered if he drank more than he thought.
He had always prided himself in his self-control in the face of temptation and didn’t want to disgrace himself, especially since he considered himself the leader of the five officials.
He must be careful not to show any signs of weakness.
Their convoy of horses split ways at the entrance into Nagasaki City and they headed to their respective residences.
Hirayama headed towards Nakashima River on his own. Once the others were out of sight, he relaxed and began to massage his temples to relieve his throbbing headache.
His nausea was worsening even though so many hours have passed since he drank his last cup.
The road turned when it reached the river and followed it, but this route was rarely used because of the filthy stench of the river.
Ah, that’s right, Hirayama thought hazily, he should have turned onto the paved road some time ago.
He turned his horse around, only to find himself disorientated by the darkness. His vision had turned blurry, it was hard to see more than three feet in front of him.
And now that he had turned around, he wasn’t entirely sure which way along the river he should go.
He dismounted and stood there in a daze for a while, before stepping closer to the water to see if he could identify any landmarks by the riverside.
There was a tall silhouette sticking out of the water.
He stepped into the water to take a closer look. It wasn’t a landmark.
It was a young lady with a plain face, staring straight at him. Her face wasn’t remarkable at all, but the colour of her eyes were unusual.
A soulless light-grey that shone like two full moons in the dark.
He frowned at her. ‘Ojou-sama4polite form of young lady, what are you doing here? Go back home. It’s dangerous to be out here so late.’
The young lady smiled at him but did not move.
He stepped forward to get close enough to pull her out towards the riverbank but at this moment, a fiery pain jolted through his chest and worsened his nausea.
Hirayama vomitted into the river.
Embarrassed at showing this sort of weakness, he turned aside, clutching his chest.
The young lady watched him retch until he tasted blood.
When there was nothing left in his stomach, he straightened his trembling limbs.
But instead of the plain-faced young lady, there was now a beautiful woman with long hair and wings black as a raven against the glow of her light-grey eyes standing in her place.
Hirayama was baffled. ‘W-Who are you?’
He reached out to touch her, to check if she was real.
But his hand couldn’t reach her at all.
The beautiful woman stepped forward as if to make it easier for him and asked, ‘Why aren’t you dead yet?’
Hirayama heard the soft husky voice of the woman but couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. He stared at her blankly.
She stared back at him for a moment, then she reached out an arm to him.
Only, she wasn’t trying to assist him at all. Her sleeve fell back to reveal a tiger’s muscled limb and a set of hard claws.
Before he could even open his mouth to speak, the claws curled around his throat and ripped it from his body.