Owari, Early Autumn, 1545.
“You called for me, m’lord?” Midori closed the slide door behind her as she walked into the room.
“Yes, I did. Are you sleeping?” It wasn’t his habit to summon his retainers at this hour, but for some reasons he couldn’t sleep, and he wanted company. Rene was probably checking his financial documents or stuffs like that, so James didn’t want to bother his friend across the provincial border.
“Have I told you not to keep those courtesy when no one is around?” He could see the sleepiness in her eyes, the small entangles of her hair, but for some reasons, he couldn’t stop wondering what was in those dreamy eyes of hers.
“My apology, m’lord. I was indeed sleeping when you called for me.”
“Now that sounds more like you. Are you awake enough to play me some music? If you are tired, then you can get some rest. You deserve it.”
“I can play if my lord wants to listen. Shall I go get my biwa then?”
“Yes you shall. And bring us something to drink. Don’t bring heavy ones like sake. I don’t want to get drunk.”
“Yes, m’lord.” She bowed and left the room. He could hear her soft footsteps along the corridor outside, soft but in quick rhythm.
‘I don’t know how many times I’ve wondered about this, but why I couldn’t get her out of my mind? The way she talks, the way she walks, almost every sides of her keep roaming my mind every night. Even her music… I’ve been addicted to her music. The way she plays every note, so carefully, but also so soft, creates the sounds like the moon beneath the water. So real, yet so surreal…’
He stopped writing as Midori came back to the room with some tea, and her dark brown biwa on her back. She gently placed the tea set before him and got back to her place with her instrument. She played for him, though he didn’t remember how long or what she played. He didn’t mean to, but his mind was occupied by something else. Someone else, to be exact…
“Is Something bothering you, m’lord?” she stopped in the middle of the melody as soon as she realized he wasn’t listening. She could see a shadow of something flashed on his face. She had seen it before. Always a spark of something strange, a bit sad and dark. But she could see some hope too, hidden too well behind all the dark clouds. He always got his stark and poker face back before anyone else could see it. All, but probably only her.
“Tis ok. I was just bothered by some newly risen troubles that I must deal with soon,” he didn’t know how many times he had lied since he joined this game. He felt a bit weird and guilty at first, but now, he could lie through his teeth without a blink of an eye. Politics, he could only blame. Or should he himself be the one with guilt?
“May I serve you some tea? It could be of some help for my lord.”
He gestured for her to sit next to him and pour him some tea.
“I received an urgent message from the Akechi clan from the North that Saito Dosan had left his castle with most of his main army. They said this piece of information was gathered by Toki Yorinari’s informant. Toki was a former enemy of Saito clan, so his words can be trusted. However, at the same time I received another urgent message from Lord Hatake about the Akechi plotting to overthrow me and claim Owari for themselves.”
“You can send someone to verify the information about the Saito Clan and then make a move.”
“That is what I have in mind, but I’m not sure who. I need someone I can trust. Not nobles. They have their own roles, but not this one. I need someone like the Eight, but I can’t send the Eight themselves. Their place is to be with me.”
“You can expand your inner circle, m’lord. You will need them not only to protect you, but do your bidding as well.”
“Men are corruptible. Very few could demonstrate the loyalty I seek from them. You know that, no?”
“A man who doesn’t want anything cannot be bought. And he can be something different frommen, m’lord. You used that type once. Why not again?”
“You have a point. After you leave me, summon the Eight and my son Nobunaga to my chamber at first light. And do it secretly. I have something in mind.”
“Yes m’lord. I will.”
“Now you should go and get some rest. You have quite some stuffs to do in the morning.”
“Should I play one more melody for you?”
He sketched a figure on his notebook, a figure with a biwa on her lap. He smiled. For some reason, Midori could always ease his mind whenever he stumped onto some troubles. This time, the new piece of information Rene got him several nights pretty much changed his plans. Hattori clan leader was a real player, not AI, which meant other clan leaders such as Takeda or Uesugi would probably humans too. Humans, real humans would set this war more complicated than it was right then. He didn’t worry too much about politics playfield, for he believed Rene, with politics as his specialty, would have not much trouble with that. But military parts were another story. Battlefield strategy would be more unpredictable. And he had always relied on his ability on the field to make a difference. He might not be able to do that too often now. But humans, now they had weak points. More vulnerable, easier to break, especially with their emotions.
He didn’t gesture to dismiss her again, and so she stayed there with him the whole night. Kneeling in a corner of the room, with her gaze towards the tatami floor in front of her. She didn’t sleep, and neither did he. He kept drawing, until the first light of day shot through the jade dragon on top of his castle. For a moment, the dragon came back to life, with blaze on his eyes. Could they see it? Could anyone see it? A glorious moment of their castle. Their home…
“Father,” Oda Nobunaga showed up at James’s study room as soon as he was called for. The eleven year-old child was small comparing to James’s elite bodyguards, but still, he had a halo that made even the bravest samurai respect. Not only he was the son of their daimyo, Oda Nobuhide, but he had shown some wit, even some power when he was at his father’s side in court. He had never spoken much, but his emotionless face of an eleven-year-old child had an invisible power over everyone else.
“Now everyone is here. Let’s take a walk, shall we?” James led his entourage out of the building into his favorite cherry garden. No one was allowed inside the garden without a direct order from James. He always fancied this place. His haven without intruders of any sort.
“Do any of you know why I summon you here?”
“M’lord wants us to deal with Akechi and Saito issue?”
“Close. Among you Eight, just send one for each mission and see it done. I believe it wouldn’t be tough for you to finish the job. No?”
“I will assign Kankata to scout Mino Province for verification and Masayori to investigate Akechi’s clan. Should that be wise, m’lord?” Ishimaru asked. Because of his experience, Ishimaru was elected as the Eight’s captain when James assembled his trusted bodyguards and gave them a name.
“Secretly send Kankata to Maeda’s and Aizu’s mansion and gave the mission to their Lords. Do not let them know both of them are assigned the same mission. Send Masayori to Kizuki’s and Tomishide’s mansion and did the same thing. After that, fetch me Lord Hatake. I need to have some words with him. Are you clear on this?”
“Yes, m’lord.” They bowed.
“So what should be our job m’lord, now when you have your solution on our current matter?” Ishimaru asked.
“I want to form a secret group of soldiers. Your job will be seeking loyal and skillful men, no matter they are ashigarus, samurais, or soheis. You can even recruit women, geishas or kitchen servants, it makes no difference. The importance is their incorruptible loyalty, and their exceptional special skills, martial arts, administration, or subterfuge. You will gather them together, train them more if need be, then introduce them to me. Make sure you trust every one of them when you recruit. This mission must be kept secret. Only those who are summoned here today know about it. No one else is allowed to know, even my wife and the generals. You have any questions?”
“What should we call it m’lord?”
“Ryukage should be good. We shall address this group with this name. It will take direct orders from me, and from now on, you Eight will be the captains of this group. Anything else?”
“We will do it at once m’lord,” the Eight bowed, and at his dismissal, they all left but Midori and his son.
“I thought you trust your retainers?”
“To some extent, I do trust them. You should trust their abilities, for they are truly good at it. Only trust those you know well. You know their motives, their strengths, their weaknesses, even their personalities. These men, the Eight, they live to protect me and they would die if I die. They are honorable men, and woman, with none desires for fame nor fortune nor power. Men without desire like that cannot be bought. That’s why I trust them. For other lords, they can’t be trusted like that, even when they owe you something valuable. For minor lords like Lord Maeda, he wants a bright future for his clan, and I secured that when I place his son, Toshiie by your side. He is sufficient, and honest, so I can trust him with this. However, you see, that Akechi, he is the clan leader of the third great clan in this Owari province, and with great ambitions such as his, you must be careful. Unless you have a strong emotional bond with that man or that clan, you shouldn’t entrust him with any true power. Keep him close and heed his council. He is a wise man eventually. With his help, you can achieve a great many things. If you give him manpower, he might very well go against you.”
“So you use him when you still can, and kill him as soon as you have evidence about his betrayal?”
“No, son. Kill him as soon as you feel the threat is imminent. Do not wait until you have evidence. It might be too late.”
“What if I kill the wrong man? His talent is valuable, and killing him might trigger unrest among my retainers. Am I right father?”
“You speak the truth. If you kill the wrong man, then we just have another dead man. You don’t have to worry about that. It is honorable to die for their lord, and he did that when you kill him. As for his talent, you have equally talent men among your retainers. Also, rely on your own ability. Train your wits and blades, you will be greater than any of them. That’s why I’m telling you these things. I’m making you my heir. And other retainers need not to know you kill Lord Akechi. It can be just an accident.”
“I understand, father.”
“One more thing before you are off for your sword practice. For your friends and ally, show them mercy and good will. Let them love you and be grateful for having you as their friend. But for your enemies, make them fear you, and show them only death. That’s how you can unite this divided land.”
“Yes father,” his son bowed and left the garden, leaving him and Midori alone.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit too cruel for a child to hear such words? He is just eleven.” Midori spoke up when they were all alone.
“You don’t think it’s true?”
“Pardon me, m’lord. I am in no position to say such things. I am just your bodyguard and your maid.”
“But you do have a heart, don’t you? Tell me how you feel about the way I raise my son.”
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think it’s too painful and cruel for such a child to bear. Knowing those might make him a great warlord, but it doesn’t necessary help him to be a good man. He needs to see the beauty of life too. A child such as Nobunaga, a bit too naughty for his mother’s taste, needs that even more. Your wife, m’lord, I think she likes Nobuyuki more and spend more time with the younger brother. All Nobunaga has now are bushido lessons with the sword masters, some life lessons with you, some way of chi lessons with the lords, and very little time for himself. All those lessons might be too heavy for an eleven-year-old child.”
“What do you think I should do then?”
“I believe you should spend more time with him, m’lord, and do something different than just bushido. Show him something beautiful, like your music, your drawings.”
“How old are you, Haruki?”
“And you know about raising a child to be the heir?”
“Pardon me, m’lord. I know no such thing. I just know what a child wants to know. I once had a brother, m’lord. Just at the young lord age. He was so happy when I played the biwa for him, or when my father took him out into the woods to see the nature. I could see happiness in his eyes m’lord, and I could never forget it. I saw no such thing in the young lord. I know my brother was not raised to be anywhere near as great as the young lord, but I believe anyone deserves happiness. Even you, m’lord.”
“Where is your brother now?”
“My brother is dead m’lord. When I was fifteen, lord Takayama’s men came to my village to recruit young girls for his lord. My parents resisted their coercion and got them and my brother killed. They brought me to Lord Takayama’s castle, but lord Takayama didn’t want to use me for my unhappy face. They left me in the kitchen until you and your entourage picked me up and made me a servant in Nagoya castle. Many painful and indecent things happened in that kitchen but after a while, I didn’t feel pain anymore.
“Painful and indecent?”
“Pardon me, m’lord. I prefer not to speak of them to plainly. It shames me to speak of them.”
“Did you know the punishment for dishonarable things in Owari Province?”
“Yes I did, m’lord. I reported to my supervisor the first time, and nothing changed at all. They even got worse. I doubt lord Takayama knew about this at all.”
“A samurai must be responsible for his retainers. Which lord Takayama was this?”
“Lord Takayama Munekane, m’lord. He is General Takayama Muneyori’s elder brother.”
“Good, have General Takayama meet me in this garden right now,” James called for the guards outside the cherry garden and they ran to fetch his order at once.
“Please, m’lord. You do not have to do anything for a maid such as I. Lord Takayama Munekane is a powerful man in court, m’lord. Removing him right now might mean danger for you.”
“You do not have to worry about that. Now tell me, what it is about me that you believe I do deserve happiness too? Don’t hesitate. Just tell me what you think.”
“You always look cold and calm, just like when you were with us a moment ago. You rarely show any emotion, and when you show any, it was pain and sorrow I saw. Pardon me for my intrusive observations. I followed you every day everywhere as your personal maid, and I haven’t seen a moment of happiness in your eyes.”
He looked at her, caught by surprised as he heard her words. He had never thought his maid would pay close attention to him, as detailed as to what behind his eyes. He had never expected this from any of his entourage in this world.
“Since when you paid such close attention?”
“Since the night I first played music for you, m’lord. Your gaze, it pierced right through me. I thought you understood my music. I thought you might understand me. Pardon my intrusion, but for some reasons, I felt the same for you. Your coat of armor. It was just too cold and too strong, but it gave you away to me. You’d been lonely for too long. We’d been lonely for too long…”
“M’lord, General Takayama is here to see you,” a bodyguard announced outside the garden.
“Bring him here,” he called for the General, but his eyes were fixed at Midori. He couldn’t tell what he had for her, but there was definitely something. What it was, he didn’t know.
“M’lord call for me,” General Takayama Muneyori knelt in front of James.
“I have information about foul deeds happened in your brother’s mansion. Do you know about this?”
“No m’lord. I have no knowledge about this.”
“He is your brother, General. Takayama clan is a great clan, and I do not want bad rumors about the Takayama going around Owari.”
“I understand, m’lord. What would you have me do?”
“You know what to do with a dishonorable samurai, general. I grant you the authority to do what is needed. Also, from now on, you will be Takayama’s clan leader. What do you have in mind?”
“He will be stripped off of all his ranks and rewards. I will investigate this rumor. If it turns out to be true, I will have all the felons’ heads on pikes. As for my brother, he should feel ashamed of himself and commit seppuku. But if it turns out to be false, I will track down this rumor and reclaim our clan’s honor. Would it be wise, m’lord?”
“You are wise to do so my general. See me directly if you have request for aid regarding this matter.”
“Thank you for your trust, m’lord. You have any other need of me?”
“I want to know about our recruiting, general. How it is?”
“We are going to have about fifteen thousand men at the end of autumn, m’lord. We currently have ten thousand men strong and ready to march if you have need of us. However, if you can wait another season, I can have you fifteen thousand ready for battle.”
“You are doing a fine job general. However, I have something new for you and our men to do.”
“What is it, m’lord? How can I be of use?”
“I have a new formation for our ashigaru divisions. Gather our most elite divisions this afternoon outside the castle, I will train them. I just have this coming into my mind last night.”
“May I know its name, m’lord?”
“I believe you can call it yari square. I have plans in my mind that it might be proved helpful.”
“Was it what I heard in legend about yari heroes?” Midori asked as the general left. “The legendary yari square formation they used.”
“You have the idea, but it was something different. It will be a much stronger and bigger square. You will see it this afternoon, Haruki.”
“Yes, m’lord. Are you summoning your court this morning?”
“No, not now. For now, play me some music.”
Author: Dat Le