Mino Province, late-autumn, 1545.
“You are indeed good with the sword, m’lord.” Saito Dosan laughed as they drank tea after the duel with James. They had been staying in Inabayama castle for three days, and besides the first day when he captured the castle, James always spent a few hours practicing sword fighting and discussing strategies with his former enemy, Saito Dosan.
“You are not bad yourself, Lord Saito. I enjoyed our fighting against you in the past as much as I do now.”
“You seem to enjoy courtesy more than the last time we fought some years ago, m’lord. Pardon me, but you used to be very ruthless, even to your own people.”
“I appreciate your opinion, Lord Saito. Time changes. People change too. Time taught me a dire lesson in this matter.”
“It is, indeed, m’lord. You told me earlier that you have something to discuss with me?”
“Yes, I do. You see, even though you and I respect each other as fellow students of war, some people in our court may not think so. I know there are some Mino people that still hold a grudge against the Oda clan, and the same goes for some Oda people. If we do not deal with this now, sooner or later there will be rebellions against the Oda’s rule.”
“That issue is indeed true. Do you have anything in mind yet, m’lord?”
“I’m thinking about marrying your daughter to my son, Nobunaga, if you agree, of course. Also, I want to leave Inabayama castle and Mino for you when I leave for Nagoya. You know the people in your province so it will be best if you resume your post as the administrator here. And during the winter, I want you to train five thousand archers and send them to Nagoya when spring comes. I will leave general Takayama here with you at your disposal since you lost some of your generals in our previous fight. I am truly sorry for your loss. They were brave and honored men themselves. Also, general Takayama can help you with the training. He too is an excellent archer.”
“Thank you m’lord. It is an honor for our clan to join with yours through marriage. Should I arrange for you to meet Kicho soon? As for general Takayama, thank you for your concern. He will be treated as an honored guest in Mino Province.”
“I am glad you like my idea, Lord Saito. I would like to meet your daughter this evening for dinner if possible.”
“That is very easy to arrange, m’lord. If you pardon me, I can take my leave and do it right away.”
“That should be good.” As Saito bowed and left, James’ face turned blank as he thought about their previous conversations. Saito was a smart man, since he knew how to treat James after his defeat. Always friendly and cooperative. Does he just want to climb for power among my ranks, or is he planning something else?
Thinking about planning reminded him about his follow-up plan before leaving Mino. It was not an optimal situation, since he didn’t fully trust Saito Dosan.
“Ishimaru, we’re heading for the archery range. I want to relax my mind for a while. Send someone to fetch general Takayama there. I have a few words for him.”
“At once, m’lord.” Ishimaru ordered a runner for general Takayama before they proceeded to the archery range.
It was a vast area near the castle courtyard with open field. And since it was an open field, he could feel the autumn breeze embrace him under the warmth sunlight. It was a beautiful afternoon eventually. James picked up his bow on the rack and took aim. His surroundings were so quiet that he could hear the arrow whistling in the air and a soft thump from afar as it pierced through the target. He released another arrow. This time, between the whistling and the thump, he heard the hustling sound of the grass being disturbed by footsteps. Maybe General Takayama was there to meet him.
“M’lord, you have need of me?” General Takayama arrived soon after James called for him.
“Yes, I do. You see, now that we’ve finished our dispute with the Saito clan, we will expand our control into nearby regions before taking Kyoto. To the east, we have the Kiso clan of South Shinano, who is currently our trading partner. We will need to maintain a good relationship with them since we do not have enough force to watch our eastern flank. To the south, we have the Imagawa clan who should be destroyed soon at the end of this year, according to my plan. Beyond their domains are the Hojo of Edo and Takeda of Shinano. Once I have finished off the remnants of Imagawa, they will be our next targets in the eastern expansion. To the west, across Ise Bay is Kyoto peninsula with the Hattori and Hatakeyama are major clans, and to the north, we have the Ikko Ikki monks. They are formidable enemies, who we will eventually need to overcome when we march to Kyoto. This is where I need you, general Takayama. In a few years, I will need you to march to Omi province and from then continue our conquest in this region. And as I will be busy with the war down south, you will be responsible for our legions here. You will have around four to five years to raise forty thousand men for this conquest. You will be in charge as the highest general, and my son will be your deputy, since by that time he will have finished his coming-of-age ceremony. His teacher, Hirate Masahide will be your strategic advisor. We both know how wise and knowledgeable he is in this matter.”
“You have planned far ahead, m’lord. I take it I will have my post here in Inabayama during this time?”
“Yes, it is. But the plan isn’t the reason for you to station here. You can raise forty thousand men anywhere in our domain. In fact, I want you to observe and watch the Saito clan. Three days ago, we were still killing each other, so I do not trust them totally. I have engaged Nobunaga and Kicho with Lord Saito, and that should secure our alliance. Still, I want to you have hold on Mino in the worst case where they betray us. I believe you know what I mean, general?”
“Yes I do, m’lord. Should I summon my other retainers back in Owari to reinforce my power here? I didn’t bring many with me since we marched hastily.”
“That will do, general. But only summon the number that you need. You will need your network in Owari after I leave for Mikawa and Imagawa.”
“Good. While I am taking Kicho with me, I leave Nobunaga in your hands for training and protection. Worst-case scenario, I fail with my plans and Nagoya falls into Imagawa’s hand; you can protect my heir and raise him to avenge me. If my plans work, he can help you and also gain experience on his way to Kyoto as well. There is much he can learn from you, general.”
“I will not let you down, my daimyo.”
“I know you won’t, general. One last thing, I am ordering Lord Saito to train five thousand archers. I want you to personally train and know them, since they will be our shock troops in the future campaigns. I want them to be in a trusted hand.”
“Our main shock troop, m’lord?”
“Do you remember the Mongolian’s cavalry two hundred years ago?”
“Yes I do. They tried to conquer us but they failed.”
“Yes, they failed in naval battle. But they have a very powerful cavalry strategy, which is the combination of light archery cavalry and heavy lance cavalry. I am planning to use that against other clans we will face in the future.”
“I see, m’lord. I will do my best. You indeed think far ahead.”
“Good. You can take your leave now. I have some preparations before going back tomorrow. Remember one thing after I’m gone. Saito explicitly said he would treat you as an honored guest. Remember, just a guest.”
“I understand. I will keep that in mind, m’lord.”
The man bowed and quickly left the yard, leaving James alone with his bodyguards. After general Takayama left, James couldn’t help himself worrying over Rene’s plan. The idea itself was good, but there were so many variables in the execution steps. It was true that sometimes, greater risks yielded greater results, but normally he wouldn’t take such choices unless he had to. And he had a bad feeling about this.
“M’lord, you seemed troubled?” Midori asked as she watched James pierce arrows after arrows to the targets at the end of the archery range.
“I’m just worrying over the Tokugawa clan. My plans there were not flawless, and so many spontaneous things can render it failure.”
“Pardon me, m’lord, but if you say so, why did you make the call at the beginning?”
“Sometimes, it is not always me who makes the call. Anyway, it’s no use complaining. The best thing I should do now is securing our position and return to Nagoya as fast as possible. We can make our stance there. If we must die, there’s nothing better than fighting and dying to protect your family, right, Midori?”
“By your side, m’lord. There’s nothing I wish for more.”
He couldn’t help but smile all the way back to his chamber on the other side of the castle as he kept thinking about Midori. Maybe there was something between them, something more than just between a lord and his personal bodyguard.
Later that evening, Lord Saito took his daughter to meet James for dinner. Lord Saito had prepared his daughter very carefully and James was surprised when he first saw her entering the room. She was rumored in the province to be strikingly beautiful, and did live up to such expectation. She was still very young, but she had the lines of beauty on her face. And a beauty was never a good thing without proper handling. James made a note to himself to pay special attention to this youngster. A beautiful appearance combining with a sharp mind, would be very dangerous for his clan if she were not on his side.
“M’lord,” they bowed, and at James’ signal, got into their seat across the table from James and his son Nobunaga. He had chosen his study room instead of main hall to host the Saito family. It was more secretive and cozy for private talks for his taste.
“It is a great pleasure to meet you and your daughter, Lord Saito.”
“We are much honored to have our daughter married to your heir, m’lord. The young lord was brave, brilliant, and full of potential. I could see that on the battlefield very clearly.”
“You praise me too high, Lord Saito. It was my father’s plan from the start. I was just doing my job.” Nobunaga laughed with a satisfying look in his eyes. He was flattered by Saito Dosan’s praises.
“He spoke the truth, lord Saito. There are much that he can learn from the elders such as us.”
“Executing your father’s plan was not an easy task, and you did it well. You will be a great lord in the future and may even have more great deeds than your father now.”
“I have done nothing great for my clan yet, lord Saito. But I mean to do it. I only have a quarter of my life left, and still have many dreams to fulfill. As we are talking about my son, how do you think about letting him and his teacher stay with you for a while to study about warfare from you? We have very different military mindsets, so he can learn a lot from you if he stays here.”
“It will be my honor, m’lord, to teach the young lord in the art of war.”
“Thank you lord Saito. And about the young lady here, do you like to visit Nagoya and learn about our culture and traditions before you marry to our family? Lady Tsuchida will be more than happy to have you by her side.” James turned to the young girl who had been quiet since the beginning of the evening.
“It is my honor, m’lord to learn about my future husband’s tradition. If my father allows me, I would love to come to Nagoya.” She smiled gracefully, yet for some reason James saw mischievousness in her eyes. She was young, but she might be trained in some sort. Saito Dosan was an ingenious person himself. He shouldn’t expect less from his daughter.
“Of course I allow you dear. Be good and obedient to Lady Oda. You will one day bear that title too.”
“It is settled then,” James smiled at the couple and raised his cup. The others followed his action and cheered for a success negotiation.
They spent the rest of the meal exchanging pleasantries, and after the Saitos left, James was back to his own little world without worries. He couldn’t believe how rarely he had time on his own. From the day he captured Inabayama he had been spending most of his time formulating responding plans. He couldn’t delay the trip back to Nagoya any longer. Since Rene had provided no information since three days ago, he must be back to his castle to react to any rising situations. And thinking about Rene and the lack of information, James realized he needed to do something with this. He couldn’t just rely on Rene’s information to formulate plans. He needed a network in Mikawa and beyond that. But for now, he didn’t have the man-power to do so. For now, they needed time. His men could only cover Owari and Mino for now. His only hope for expanding his network was in the spring, after he had finished the training for his secret squad, Ryukage.
“M’lord, it’s me, Haruki. May I come in?” Even though James told Midori many times since she was his private bodyguard, she did not have to follow procedures for common retainers.
“Come in. How’s the preparation going?” He asked when she closed the door behind her. Midori was very attractive in Kimono, with a sharp touch of strength to her femininity. She used to wear armor at night while guarding him, but he had relieved her from that burden. It was a pain to sleep in those big and heavy armor.
“We can depart at first light, m’lord. Our men are enjoying their rest. You should too, m’lord.”
“I am, Midori. Would you mind singing for me while I am sleeping? I feel a bit tired.”
“Of course, m’lord,” she smiled at him and sat by his side as he closed his eyes and relaxed his body. Somehow, he could feel the heat building up inside him. Quietly she sang as she gently touch the back of his hand. Her hand was warm and soft, as he had imagined.
“Thank you,” he murmured as he sunk into his dreams. He didn’t know that while he was sleeping, she had kissed him softly, and smoothly wiped off her lipstick trace on his lips. All he knew was when he woke up, she was still sitting there by his bed, with her palm rested on his arm, and her head tilted sideway as she was sleeping. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that he just lay there looking at her for the longest time ever.
Quietly he sat back up without removing her hand of his, leaned closer to his bodyguard, and woke her up while his lips were still on hers.
Author: Dat Le