Chapter 9: That Shapeshifter, Collecting Clues
In the middle of the day, people in the streets of Karatsu City caught sight of a tengu1Japanese mythical demon with red skin, a long nose and large wings; renowned for their swordsmanship and powers over the wind with raven-black wings fly over the city with a doll-like beauty in its arms.
Those who saw it were spooked and began to panic while those who only heard about it scoffed and said that anyone who claimed to have seen such a thing in broad daylight must have drank too much the night before.
Yoka preferred shifting into the form of a prehistoric golden eagle when she had to run long-distance errands in the daytime to avoid causing chaos among the ordinary people, but this time, there was no other way.
The young mistress was travelling with her and she insisted on getting there as fast as possible. So Yoka chose to shift into a tengu she had once devoured because it was annoying.
They headed towards Kyuragi Village, a small sprawling settlement along the banks of the Kyuragi River.
This village sat on the southern edge of Karatsu Domain, near a border checkpoint guarded by local samurai and inspectors who would check the identification papers of those travelling in and out of the domain.
Yin ordered Yoka to land in the courtyard of this checkpoint tower.
A samurai guard came running and was startled to see that the doll-like girl who was held captive in the arms of the winged creature now accompanied by a plain-faced maid with her head lowered.
His mouth opened and closed like one of Yuzuru’s broken inventions.
Yin took the initiative to speak first, ‘I want to see your captain.’
The guard regained his senses and bowed deeply. ‘I’ll get him for you right away, daimyo-sama2Japanese feudal lord!’ He hurried away.
The young mistress looked up at the shabby building that appeared derelict at first glance. This was the southern checkpoint of her domain. It was quite pathetic.
But she hadn’t prioritised reinforcing it because not many people used this checkpoint in the mountains to get in and out of Karatsu.
Sure enough, this little oversight led to such–
‘Do you feel responsible?’ Yoka asked as the young mistress became increasingly displeased with what she saw.
Soulless grey eyes bore into her ink-black ones for a moment.
Yin turned away. ‘I don’t care about the fate of these children. It’s just…if I had set up the trap here, I could have scared the rats out of hiding.’
The corner of Yoka’s mouth quirked up. ‘If it was so easy to catch them, I would have brought them before you already.’
Yin glared at her maid.
A loud voice called out from the checkpoint tower, ‘Little Daimyo! It’s good to see you.’ The guard had returned and was trailing behind his tall samurai captain.
‘Address me properly, Kotaru Sanjo,’ Yin reproached him. The armoured man removed his helmet and bowed deeply in greeting, grinning broadly at her.
‘You didn’t tell me you were coming so I am ill-prepared for your arrival. Where’s your horse?’
Yin pointed to her maid. ‘Here.’
A question mark appeared next to Captain Kotaru’s head.
The young mistress folded her arms. ‘I’m not here to chat. There’s been an incident. I need to know who came through here last week.’
Captain Kotaru led her into the checkpoint tower.
Yin sat down on the osmanthus zabuton3large, flat cushions for sitting/kneeling on the floor Yoka brought from the castle in the captain’s seat at the front of the checkpoint tower’s empty main hall.
The nervous guard who had called the captain for them brought tea on a tray. Yoka intercepted him and tasted it before asking to be led to their kitchen.
He became flustered and apologised repeatedly.
The maid assured him that it wasn’t his fault.
Yin pursed her lips as Yoka left with the guard. The checkpoint not only lacked manpower, but also had no servants. It seemed that all the chores were handled by the samurai guards themselves.
Captain Kotaru gathered all the samurai who were on duty last week and assembled them in front of Yin.
Yin stared at the six samurai guards and two inspectors in front of her and asked drily, ‘This is everyone who works here, isn’t it?’
Kotaru Sanjo puffed out his chest and slapped the back of the samurai nearest to him. ‘That’s right! This is the elite squad I’ve gathered for you, Little Daimyo.’
The “elite squad” in front of her was made up of two scrawny young scribes who appeared to have never worked in the sun before and a bunch of middle-aged “samurai” with pot bellies.
Two of the samurai had worn their armour wrongly and the rest didn’t bring their swords with them. Clearly, they were out-of-luck merchants her samurai captain had conned into his service.
Yin sighed. ‘You don’t have records of who passes through the checkpoint, do you?’
Captain Kotaru grinned sheepishly. ‘We don’t. But my elite samurai have very good memories! They can describe all the people who have come by last week.’
A dark look spread across Yin’s porcelain face.
The two scrawny inspectors who had been pushed forward to give their report began to tremble.
Captain Kotaru had to prod them a second time before the one on the left opened his mouth to speak.
There was about 50 people who passed through the checkpoint last week—they couldn’t give the young mistress an exact number. Most were merchants hurrying to make deliveries or monks on a pilgrimage to Karatsu Shrine for the Haru Matsuri4Spring Festival: held from the end of March till the end of April after rice has been planted to pray for a bountiful harvest and conduct Shinto purification rites.
All of them had legitimate identification papers with authentic seals, so the inspectors didn’t think much before letting them through.
‘Was any one of them headed for Tenzan Village?’
’N-Not that we know of…’ the other inspector stammered under the young mistress’s intense gaze.
One of the samurai guards sniggered and nudged the person next to him, ‘Hey, remember that talkative monk who was headed for Kagami Shrine?’
The samurai beside him snorted. ‘The idiot who kept insisting that the direction the rice fields were in relation to the villages they belonged to would dictate whether or not their harvest would be favourable this year?’
A samurai behind them interrupted, ‘He’s lying. He said Tenzan and Kyuragi would suffer this year but Tenzan Village farms forest berries and Kyuragi is a fishing village! Don’t pay any attention to his boasting.’
‘He’s probably from one of those weird foreign cults in Nagasaki.’
the inspector on the left mumbled.
‘But he came with a group of merchants from Kokura Domain,’ the inspector on the left mumbled, ‘and there was nothing wrong with his papers.’
Yin narrowed her eyes.
‘What about the merchants he came with? Where were they headed?’
‘They didn’t pass through the checkpoint,’ Captain Kotaru added helpfully. ‘Just dropped him off here and moved on south. I remember because they were blocking the way with their large procession of palanquins.’
Yin felt like she was going to explode.
‘Which part of that isn’t suspicious at all?!’
Yoka told them about the kidnapping incidents and Captain Kotaru protested immediately, ‘How were we supposed to know?’
Yin knew it wasn’t their fault. The two villages didn’t report these kidnappings out of the fear that people would think their villages were cursed since the incidents happened so close to the Haru Matsuri, so Kotaru and his men wouldn’t have known.
And even if they had known about it, they didn’t have enough manpower to resolve the situation.
But she was feeling very irritated and annoyed with herself.
She stuck out her chin and refused to apologise. ‘Describe the monk and head merchant for me,’ she ordered instead. ‘Yoka, draw portraits of these two people.’
The samurai struggled to describe the monk because his face was very ordinary, much like Yoka’s but male. So when Yoka completed his portrait, Captain Kotaru slapped the table and exclaimed excitedly, ‘That’s him! That’s him! That’s exactly what he looks like! You’re a good artist, Yoka-san!’
Yin snorted. What’s so amazing about a yōkai5supernatural entity drawing a picture of an ordinary person with only vague descriptions?
She used such nondescript appearances to blend in with humans herself. If she couldn’t do this much, then what was the point of having this shapeshifter on her side?
It didn’t cross her mind that Yoka knew who the monk was until much later.
When the maid completed the sketch of the head merchant, Yin’s annoyance fizzled away. She stared at the familiar-looking portrait in front of her and felt faint.
‘This is Matsukura Aoko, son of the previous daimyo of Shimabara Domain,’ she said.
The previous daimyo of Shimabara Domain was the real cause of the Shimabara Rebellion. Matsukura Katsuie oppressed the people and overtaxed them to build a grand castle for himself, which eventually resulted in the outbreak of the rebellion across all of Hizen Province6an old province in the area of Saga and Nagasaki prefectures.
After the rebellion was quelled, the shogun beheaded him right away to keep the other daimyo in check.
The Matsukura clan was then evicted from Shimabara and sent to Kokura.
Captain Kotaru frowned. ‘Wasn’t Little Daimyo a baby when the rebellion happened? Why are you able recognise Matsukura Katsuie’s son?’
The young mistress gave him a sardonic smile. ‘My father tried to help the Matsukura family after they moved to Kokura and occasionally brought me along. Matsukura Aoko was his good friend and they were brothers of the same swordsmaster.’
Yin narrowed her eyes.
‘But it seems my father was the only one who thought so.’
Yin and Yoka left the border checkpoint soon after. Captain Kotaru and his “elite squad” wanted to help scour the nearby mountains and forests for the suspicious caravan of merchants but Yin rejected his help.
‘The shogun told me to be your sword when he gave me to you,’ Kotaru Sanjo insisted. ‘Who’s going to slay the enemy for you when you catch him?’
The young mistress pointed at Yoka. ‘She will.’ The maid picked her up and Yin left Captain Kotaru with these words, ‘Train your elite squad to be as good as my maid while I’m gone.’
A Short Epilogue
Captain Kotaru: …
Samurai Guard 1: Was that an insult?
Samurai Guard 2: That was an insult.
Inspector 1: Does the captain know it’s an insult?
Samurai Guard 2: I don’t think so.
[Captain Kotaru thinks about Yin’s words for half a day.]
Captain Kotaru: That little daimyo brat insulted me!