Chapter 6: That Shapeshifter, In Her Place
Rin slapped Yoka across the face.
The maid was kneeling next to Rin’s futon where she made her report. Her head snapped to the side and a red print blossomed on her cheek.
‘Do you know how hard it was to get a poison that mimics the symptoms of alcohol poisoning?’ the young mistress snapped. ‘You ruined everything!’
She pulled the covers of her blanket over her head and burrowed into her futon.
An amused smile tugged at the corners of Yoka’s mouth. ‘He was taking too long to die.’
Rin kicked her blanket away and sat up. ‘You’re just making excuses to consume his soul.’
Yoka laughed. ‘I didn’t.’
The young mistress narrowed her eyes. ‘Don’t lie to me.’
Yoka’s smile faded completely. She reached out with one hand for Rin’s chin and tilted her face so her ink-black eyes met her light-grey ones.
In a husky whisper, she said seriously, ‘Ojou-sama1polite form of young lady, I would never lie to you.’
Rin was trapped in the shapeshifter’s soulless eyes for a moment before she remembered herself and swatted the maid’s hand away.
She raised her chin. ‘Yoka, you’re not allowed to betray me.’
Yoka’s plain face seemed to flicker once and Rin thought she saw a familiar beautiful face with long, flowing hair. But when she blinked, there was only her plain-faced maid’s sincere expression in front of her.
‘We made a blood oath, human girl,’ her maid said to her. ‘Even if I wanted to, I can’t betray you.’
Suddenly, the weariness of the evening battle with the officials bore down on her like a heavy weight and all her anger vanished into thin air.
Yoka tucked her back into her futon. ‘Sleep well, Ojou-sama. We can continue playing these games tomorrow.’
Rin let herself be nestled back inside her fluffy osmanthus-scented futon and wrapped in her silk blanket.
But when Yoka blew out the light and got up to leave, she grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t go. Stay here until I fall asleep.’
The shapeshifter was about to mock her when she continued, ‘It’s an order.’
So Yoka knelt back down beside the young mistress, her light-grey eyes glowing in the dark. All the preparations for tomorrow would have to wait…
The next afternoon, Yoka heard the four officials approaching on their horses long before they arrived at the gates of Shin-Karatsu Castle.
She was on her way to the young mistress’s study with a tray of delicately prepared goshiki-itō 2rice flour sweets flavoured with mint, ginger, plum, yuzu, and cinnamon when the faint, frantic hoofbeats pricked her supernatural senses.
Just as Ojou-sama predicted.
Yoka knocked on the shoji door and announced this. Rin looked up from the report she was writing to the shogun, her eyes still clouded with concentration.
She looked unhappy to be interrupted. ‘What is it?’
‘Ojou-sama, would you like to have your tea first or meet with the officials?’ Yoka asked.
Rin put down her brush. ‘Oh, they’re here.’ She wiped her ink-stained hands on the wet towel the maid offered to her. ‘I’ll eat my sweets in the main hall.’
Yoka prepared a zabuton3large, flat cushions for sitting/kneeling on the floor for the young mistress to sit comfortably on the dais in the main hall before placing the tray of tea and goshiki-itō on the low table in front of her.
She also served the young mistress a cup of osmanthus tea from the pot before leisurely making her way to the castle gates.
By now, the officials had dismounted and were hollering to be given an audience with the daimyo4Japanese feudal lord of Karatsu. Yuzuru had been ordered to keep a lookout in the guardhouse but he had almost succeeded in making his mechanical self-cleaning contraption and was deaf to the rest of the world.
Yoka opened the gates and greeted the four men with a look of surprise on her face. ‘Why have you returned?’ she asked politely. ‘Did something happen?’
Yoshimoto was red in the face from either anger or riding like the wind. He spluttered, ‘W-We want to see Lord Terazawa immediately!’
The maid’s soulless light-grey eyes made him shrink back a little. His face paled immediately. Nakatani elbowed him out of the way and bowed to Yoka. ‘Please excuse him. Something has indeed happened and we would like to consult your daimyo about it.’
Yoka pretended to hesitate for a moment. Teshima quickly added, ‘If she’s busy at the moment, we can wait.’
The maid smiled wryly. ‘It’s not that she’s busy…’
In the main hall of the keep, Rin bit into a plum blossom shaped higashi5rice flour sweets and licked the rice flour powder from her pale fingers. When she met the gaze of the four men who entered with the maid, the corners of her mouth quirked up.
‘I hope you brought the embezzled portion of the shogun’s tribute with you.’
‘Y-You!’ Yoshimoto spluttered again. ‘H-How could you…?!’
Rin narrowed her large ink-black eyes. ‘Is this the way you’re going to talk to your superior?’
Nakatani pulled Yoshimoto back to keep him from doing anything rash. He met Rin’s gaze and tightened his hold on Yoshimoto’s shoulder.
‘Something happened to Hirayama-san,’ Nakatani said. ‘Do you know anything about that?’
The young mistress raised an eyebrow. ‘Let me guess… He was so drunk, he stumbled into a fight and got himself killed?’
Teshima’s face paled and Kuwahara clenched his fists.
Rin sighed and shook her head with mock sorrow. ‘What a foolish man,’ she ridiculed with a smirk. Her dark eyes flashed. ‘He must have offended someone he shouldn’t have.’
Yoshimoto’s large body seemed to sway and he fell to his knees in fear. Nakatani opened his mouth to speak but no words came out.
Rin took another sip of her osmanthus tea. ‘The rest of you should learn from his mistakes, don’t you think?’
The young daimyo looked like a cursed doll seated casually with a tea cup in her slender, white hands but every word she spoke was chilling.
Not at all like words that would come out of the mouth of a 13 year old.
What kind of creature had they offended?
They had severely underestimated the young daimyo appointed over them.
When the four of them found out about Hirayama’s death early that morning, they knew immediately that it was Rin’s doing. It was too coincidental.
But there was no proof. His throat had been ripped out by a wild beast and his body was found floating in the Nakashima River.
Terazawa Rin was only a little girl. How could she do something like this?
They had to confirm it, so they came.
If she really did turn out to have killed Hirayama, then they were going to make a scene and scare her into submission. But they didn’t expect that not only did she casually admit to what she had done, she also turned the tables on them and threatened them instead.
Nakatani swallowed to moisten his dry mouth and said, ‘We will have the embezzled tribute returned to you by the end of today. In return, we ask that you do not remove us from our posts as officials.’
Rin ran a finger along the rim of her tea cup and said, ‘Do it now. Yoka, go with them and make sure every single piece of the tribute is returned.’
The maid bowed. ‘Understood, Ojou-sama.’
Rin looked at the four pathetic men in front of her and gave them a small reassuring smile. ‘Don’t worry senpai6someone who is of higher experience, hierarchy, level, or age, Rin-sam won’t get rid of the dogs trained to obey her.’
Only, her smile wasn’t reassuring at all.
It sent chills down their spines and made them scramble out of the castle keep as fast as they could.