Mikawa, Autumn 1545
It had been a few days since Rene last heard from James. He called Rene at midnight talking about the fight beyond their current one, beyond the threat he was facing just then. Although Rene thought he wasn’t as good as James in military tactics, he still knew a few basics and a camp steal wasn’t something that could be dealt with carelessly. And James just talked as if he had everything under control. After all, when they were back behind computers and screens, James always managed the war; he should have known more than Rene did.
During those few days, Rene did two things. He spent time hiding the thought that James could have been killed in the back of his mind, figuring that actual historical battle would last days or so and thus, James was unable to contact him. When he failed to hide, he mused on the possibility that James was dead. What would happen then? Would James leave this world and either return to Minnesota or simply, leave? Or would he respawn like any games’ mechanic would allow? And if so, what next? Would James be on the other side of this Japan? Or become his enemy? Would he retain his memory and personality? Would there be a penalty? What would happen to this character Haruki Midori? Ah, a strange character, or perhaps, person? James spoke little of her, but filled with affection and tenderness each time. After the first few times thinking with guilt and a fear of losing his friend, Rene began to construct a plan to go with if James was indeed killed. His death, while detrimental, would be a beneficial experiment.
“My lord, we have arrived at village Kyo.”
A bodyguard on a horse trotting side by side with Rene woke him up from the daydream.
“Yes, my lord. What are your orders?”
“Proceed as usual, have third company set up perimeter and start the first round of patrol, second and first on town patrol and assist. Also, assemble my captains.” He spoke nonchalantly.
“Yes, my lord.” The bodyguard quickly sped up his horse to back of the marching army and carried the orders, allowing Rene some moments for random thoughts again.
Rene was marching his one thousand men army back to the provincial castle Okazaki of Mikawa. The confrontation against rebel commander, now Rene’s contractual commander, Matsudaira Nobutaka took heavy toll on his mental state. Although things went well and Rene now had another battalion against the Imagawa, the process to make that happen strained him so much he became slack off for a good two days, delaying the march back to Okazaki. That and the fact that he still knew nothing about the whereabouts of James combined to knock his head blank occasionally. His men had started talking about his lackluster command, issuing marching order one second and then demanding rest the next second.
The village Kyo lied just southwest of the castle, about a five-day walk away. It was a small village of just about sixty families or more, living off farming and hunting in nearby region. It lied on a good spot, in the middle of an open plain surrounded by a small hill to the south and another to the east. When Jyuuki alerted Rene, the dusk was coming, setting a soothing color upon the meadow. If the sound of the marching army could have just disappeared, it would have been a perfect place for Rene to lie down and sleep.
The bodyguard returned with the captains while their subordinates rushed the foot soldiers forward, passing the daimyo and into the village. He turned and greeted everyone, slowly and calmly before dismounting.
“Don’t bother, I want to take a walk.” He said then immediately regretted his decision, seeing all of his captains dismounted as well and followed him. He looked at the six captains and felt a strange sensation. They all stood here as his accomplices, waiting to commit the great treason against their master. Even though they were just six men, they held Rene’s plan to success in the next month. And not just these six, captain Matsudaira Hon, formerly second-in-command, had joined his relatives the rebel Nobutaka at the coastal region as a trustworthy messenger and adviser. He signaled the bodyguards, who were now beginning to dismount, to leave them.
“What are your orders, my lord?” Captain Baba spoke up after a lengthy silence.
“What are the counts on our food supply?”
“We don’t have enough for the trip back to the castle, my lord. We will have to take from this village and possibly the next.” Captain Tsumune replied.
“Don’t. Have our men paid for it, with either their work or their necessity. I know they don’t like it but consider this training for our men. Captain Baba, how is our communication line with captain Matsudaira?”
“The messengers are running steadily. The line is secured, my lord.”
The wait continued as Rene wandered off in his thought.
“That would be all. We will move out at daybreak tomorrow, have your men helped the local with the harvest and the coming winter. Keep the patrols going well. We’ll move out at daybreak tomorrow. That would be all.”
“Yes, my lord.” The three of them replied swiftly and got on their horses, quickly vanishing into the village where the men were settling down. Rene rallied his bodyguards who were previously forming a square formation surrounding the five. All of them got on the horse and followed the captains into the village.
The night fell as quick as Rene’s mood did. The scenery knew how to kill a man’s mood, dampened it down with silence and darkness. As usual, he ordered the men to camp out in the open field to avoid commandeering civilian’s houses. And since there were no clocks or nightlife, the camp died down as soon as the moon rose above the tree line. In his tent, under a little candlelight, Re tried to busy himself with doing something useful. As strange as it was, he felt like he was back on campus, procrastinating from being productive.
“My lord, a messenger from the castle.” A voice from outside the tent knocked Rene’s off his focus on the doodling.
“Ah, yes, what is it?”
“A messenger, my lord. He came from Okazaki to deliver a letter.”
Rene replied and came back with his doodle, wasting another piece of paper.
“My lord, shall I bring you the letter?”
“What? Oh, yes, do bring.”
He looked up to see the confused bodyguard who left quickly after placing the letter on the table. It took him a while to process all that and eventually pick up the letter after finishing his doodle. The letter came from his close aide Inagi in the castle, reporting his work while Rene was here.
“Something seems to bother you lately?”
Without looking away from the letter, Rene could tell it was Ataki.
“I suppose things with Nobutaka are all good?”
“All done. The exiled families in Owari have returned and joined force with Nobutaka. The spies network is established, you have full and secured communication with the men you left there. Other than that, you didn’t answer my question.”
“Nothing. Are you hungry? I can get something.”
“Ate before I got here. What do you mean nothing?”
“Either I’m not bothered or there’s nothing bothering me.”
“Are you even hearing yourself?”
Rene ignored the last. He was simply in no mood to continue the tiresome conversation.
“So, what does it read?”
That made Rene looked up.
“Didn’t you bring this here?”
“No, I didn’t. I was in the coastal region remember?”
“Ah, I see.”
Rene returned to the letter before Ataki skillfully landed a chopstick at his forehead.
“So, what does it read?” Ataki repeated himself, his hand playing with the remaining chopstick.
“Well, the economy is fine. All the paperwork for building the infrastructure and training the horse is completed and taken care of. That aside, rumors about how I handle the army got back and it pissed off some of the figures in the court. Like I care about that. Let see what else. Ah, the Imagawa has received the news. They’ll stop by the castle in two weeks. They had sent envoy wanting me to be there by the time Yoshimoto arrived so that we can discuss our strategy attacking the Oda clan. Well, I think that’s all.”
Rene put the letter aside and returned to his doodle, unknowing of Ataki’s reaction. The second chopstick landed on his forehead again.
“Damn it, what was that for?”
“Kid, are you outta your mind? You read all that and you don’t even bother to think for one second?”
Rene stared at Ataki for a split second as his brain processing the situation again.
“Wait, shit, did I read all that?” He exclaimed and picked up the letter again. He skimmed through the letter and paused in the middle to look at Ataki.
“Speaking of which, why are you here?”
“Seriously kid, what has gotten into you?”
“Ah, right, report and new orders. Wait, did you know the letter would come? Never mind that.” Rene cut himself off and only looked up again once he had finished his thought.
The Imagawa army would arrive in two weeks. They would camp next to the castle while Yoshimoto discuss the approach to conquering Owari with him. It was as if a gift from the Imagawa, asking Rene to crush the clan’s army and kill off their daimyo. Before Rene set out for Nobutaka the rebel, Imagawa Yoshimoto made it clear that the Tokugawa must throw everything it had to the formidable army of the Oda, a suicidal run at best. Only after the first engagement would the Imagawa swiftly come to “reinforce” and take the credit for the victory. Rene’s initial counter plan to this order from Yoshimoto was either to hold them here at Mikawa and take the preemptive strike or to coordinate with James and wipe out the Imagawa on the battlefield. But with this development, Rene could take on the Imagawa at the castle, effectively destroy the army and even kill Yoshimoto himself. All that was left was how would he execute this plan, should he come back only after the enemy army had settled down or before, so that his army and Nobutaka’s could form a pincer movement and crush them from within and without. James was better in this military movement, a discussion with him would do. As soon as Rene touched his earphone, he realized the thoughts he had been musing with and silently retracted his hand.
“I’ll need more time to deal with the Imagawa, to form a plan and plot out the details. We’re only five days away from the castle, even if I can drag on we would still be back at the castle before the two weeks deadline so an ambush with Nobutaka is quite hard. Ataki, what do you think? A pincer or a surround?”
“Are you sure you want to ask me this?” Ataki pulled out a bottle from his satchel and started drinking.
“Well, never mind then. If I ask you to conceal Nobutaka’s army when they move to surround the castle, can you do it?”
“It’s hard but not impossible. Considering you are committing treason against the court and the clan, I’ll be up against both the Tokugawa and the Imagawa’s spies. Quite troublesome indeed.”
“How long would it take for them to move under your concealment?”
“. I will have to make sure my network clear a path for the army and the army is willing to split up and move as small groups by night. That is the best plan. As soon as I leave tonight to make the preparation, probably eighteen to twenty days for the last group.”
“Still too long, Yoshimoto would have formed an offensive plan by then and I couldn’t stall him.”
The two fell into a moment of deep contemplation until Ataki spoke up again.
“You can distract the Tokugawa spies in the region. That can help speed up the time.”
“You have to attract the Tokugawa spies’ attention so that they’ll leave the rural areas to me. Try to do something big enough that will require their attention and effort to investigate. The bigger the incident, the more spies you’ll attract and the less I’ll have to deal with.”
“And how much will it help?”
“I’m not sure yet. The first cavalry group would arrive within ten days and the last infantry would in about two weeks if the forests are cleared of spies. A couple of spies left would delay the march by a day or two so that would make sixteen days at worst.”
“That will do.”
“But I’ll have to move out now if you want to do that. That whole pincer or surround thing, figure it out yourself then. Anything else?”
Rene scratched his chin for a moment.
“No, just focus on that. Guide them there. As soon as I have details on the Imagawa camp, I will coordinate the attack. I will figure the commotion.”
“Good luck then.”
Ataki left quickly after his last words.
The next morning came with a surprise order that the army was to stay at Kyo for another two days. Rene barely slept the previous night, trying to figure out a commotion that would attract the spies. He had never been good with micromanaging counter intelligence and found the task a tall order. A delayed march would only attract at best a loudmouth guard, not a bunch of spies. In addition, it only hurt the men’s morale and the supply stock. The captains knew this and Rene knew they knew but sadly, all Rene could excuse was time to figure out a plan. He began to worry about his reputation as a general and walked around the camp like a mad man, not knowing what he wanted to do or show his men. By nightfall, Rene picked a few bodyguards and went hunting in a nearby forest, blindly ignored the captains busy maintaining order within the ranks.
“I have failed because of this stupid trivia.”
He went on and on thinking about that until he came back from a failed hunt. Nobutaka could have marched the army by now and probably been spotted by the court’s spies. Tomorrow morning he would wake up with his general Hidenaga’s blade by his neck. The thought shivered him until a commotion ahead in his path disrupted his self-tormenting. A band of soldiers was standing in front of a small cottage and shouting about when he arrived. Apparently, they got into a fight with one of the villagers.
“What’s going on here?”
As soon as he spoke, the soldiers broke the circle and bowed, revealing their opponent, a girl in ragged clothing. She had long black hair that covered half of her face and a slim short built resembled that of a malnutrition adolescent.
“So, what’s going on here?”
“This filthy woman says this is her house. Clearly, no woman can live on her own, it is a disgrace to her bloodline.”
One of the men spoke up and Rene almost burst out laughing because of the outdated logic.
“To hell with you all, this has been my house for a year. Ask the villagers, ask the chief about it.”
“Noisy woman. Show the daimyo respect.”
The soldiers standing closest to her immediately forced her down on the ground with their yaris before Rene could react. She cried out even louder.
“Imbecile, arrogant. My daimyo, they dared raise their hands on a maiden.”
“That’s enough.” Rene felt unease and decided to act quickly. “Hands off her. From now on, no soldiers under my command are allowed to harm or question the people in the villages near the camp without proper authority. Pass the words on and all of you, get back to the camp.”
The men hesitated but eventually gave in to the order. They released the woman, more like let her collapse on the ground and hastily made their way back. Rene soon joined their path but not before leaving a sincere apology.
Rene woke up early on the next day, even before the sunrise. He felt like time was up against him and he had lost the battle in such a trivial manner. As he lied awoke on his futon, continued the race in his mind, a bodyguard came.
“My lord, we caught an enemy spy. We had him surround but there is a bit complication.”
The news gave Rene a glimmer of hope as he rose up quickly.
“What’s the complication?”
“It’s better to show you, my lord. Forgive us for our incompetence.”
“Don’t mind that, walk me there quickly.”
He threw a robe over his body and almost ran out of the tent. The adjutant showed him the way while reporting.
“We caught him earlier this morning. He had lit up the patrol’s tent and leaked the food containers but thankfully, he did not poisoned them. We surrounded him when he tried to escape but right now, he was resisting arrest. Although we have the number, his skill with the sword is unmatched by our men.”
“Bring me twenty men with yaris and have them formed on my command. In the meantime, you go and make sure all the camp is on full alert and the damage is in check. Tighten security.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The bodyguard broke off as soon as Rene arrived as the crowd. His soldiers were surrounding a full-armored swordsman wielding a katana with their dull ones. He stared at the spy skillfully dodged and maimed his men, avoiding their fatal and slowly making his way to the main gate. It seemed none of his men even thought of picking up their yaris to do a simple surround. As soon as the twenty men and captain Tsumune arrived, Rene took control and stepped forward with his katana unsheathed.
“Surround him.” He swiftly brought everyone’s attention to his presence as the twenty men formed a circle around the swordsman, their yaris pointing forward.
The spy finished off the remaining challenger inside the circle then lowered his sword.
“I wish a private audience of the daimyo.”
The voice was vaguely familiar, drowned in a tense atmosphere and a loud mocking laugh.
“You will, once you are chained and bowed.” Rene sharply retorted, his mind raced quickly on how to use this spy to cause the incident.
“How about now, with me sitting in your tent, Mister daimyo?”
There was something odd about that sentence.
“What did you say?”
“You’re not one of those NPCs, right?” The swordsman raised his sword and pointed it at Rene. It took Rene some minutes to realize that the soldiers around him did not register that exchange in their minds. It was as if they froze on the spot so that Rene and the spy could have their moment alone.
“Who are you?”
“Someone like you. Bring me to your tent and I will answer the rest.”
The spy sheathed his sword and removed the helmet. To Rene’s amazement, that was a girl.
“That damn bitch from yesterday.”
Somewhere in the crowd, a few soldiers yelled and reminded Rene of last night encounter. No wonder she was slim, she looked like a fourteen year old.
“All men stand down. Captain, escort her to my tent and establish a perimeter twenty meters around my tent. I want to have a moment with her alone. Once I finish interrogating I will decide on the next order.” Rene stuttered for a little and mustered whatever left in his mind to blurt out the order.
A few minutes later, the girl, without weapons and armor but a simple robe, sat across from Rene on his chair at the war table. This confusing situation took away his confidence and demeanor as a daimyo and left him lost for words. He mustered enough courage just to sneak a glance but to speak up. Maybe the fact that this girl came from the old reality struck him hard, brought all the social construct he so despised to this new reality. The girl didn’t look comfortable as well but simply because she was the interrogated one yet seemingly had the initiative to do anything.
“Well, are you going to ask me anything?”
Rene cleared his throat yet again and began to mumble.
“Ok… let’s start simple, what’s your name?”
“Not who are you? I was wondering you would jump right into the depth of the problem.” She hid a cheeky smile by looking away from him.
“I… would like to take it easy and slow. What’s your name?”
“It was Avy. But here, I go by Miki.”
“Avy? What kind of name is that? European?”
“I haven’t heard term for quite a while.” She burst out laughing and made Rene even more nervous.
“What’s so funny about it? What do you mean quite a while?”
She calmed herself down eventually and put a lock of hair behind her ear.
“It means I got stuck here for so long. I don’t quite remember how long ago, but I was not born in this world like you. It’s like, one day I woke up in this world.”
Even though Rene had already thought about this kind of problem, his mind began to race, trying to grasp the situation and depict what could happen next. Besides James, she was the first to affirm that this was an alternative reality. If so, then how many players were there? Where? So this was indeed a game, that would mean there was an exit and probably someone would have left the game. Then how? What were the mechanics? The rules? His mind racked up and ran like usual, as if the last couple of days didn’t happen.
“It was quite lonely around here. I thought I’ve gone insane for sometimes. I’m glad I found you.”
She looked down and hid her face with the long hair. The scene alone stopped his train of thought.
“Wha…what do you mean?”
“I mean what I mean. It’s really hard to discern between this reality and home. Once you wandered this place long enough you found yourself stuck in a place unknowing of the other. Was I really there? Or I’m just a crazy person with a vision of some unreal place? The thought was a drug and it drowned you quickly.”
Rene thought she was about to collapse. She leaned forward, holding on to her hands.
“Are…are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Are you supposed to be the daimyo? Be like one.” Her voice nearly broke but the tone seemed cheerful. Rene sat dumbfound, staring at the shaken figure in front of him then walked around her and put on her his blanket. He then returned to his seat, feeling unease and watching her shaking even more. Her hair had completely covered her face, she hid herself deeper into the blanket.
“Well, eh, how do I start this? The name is Rene, but right now I’m the daimyo of the Tokugawa clan, Tokugawa Hirotada. Back then, I am a college student. What else? Ah, I’m kind of a shut in, bland and socially clueless so if I have been insensitive, please forgive me. I used to read a lot but now I just like to write and think more. Also, I like politics and academic stuff but I am a lazy ass who would spend the whole winter break playing games. Other than that, well…”
He left the sentence hanged and looked at her. She had stopped shaking, cleared the hair in her way and looked up. She smiled. He stuttered.
“Eh, well, I’m not sure how to, eh, you know, greet someone from the same, origin, so, nice to meet you, I guess?”
She laughed again, more naturally this time, and he joined awkwardly.
“Thank you. Rene, isn’t it? Nice to meet you, too. I’m fine now. Alright, shall we get into this interrogation you wanted to do?”
Somehow, it felt like she had had the initiatives since the beginning.
The one thousand men army didn’t march back to Okazaki before the week ended. The soldiers rumored about a blossom in the general’s tent that vanished once the general came out and gave the order on the dawn of the fifth day. With the army left, the villagers of Kyo found one of the cottages emptied.
Author: Minh Vu