There was a big town and a small village separated from each other by a valley and five hours on a long dirt road. The big town was a commercial center where people came and went with the goods they brought South. It had surplus population and spawned a variety of buildings and professions. Besides the majority of shops and markets, it had also inns and stables for travelers, residential houses, and even a library collecting the travelers’ trinkets. Almost every day the townspeople enjoyed a new feast, from a new group of merchants or performers passing town.
For a week, the townspeople had a new feat to watch. Early morning before the shopkeepers rose, they saw a crazy man circling around the town’s center, dancing and yelling all sort of nonsense. When the first townsman approached him, he yelled even louder in a mystic language and didn’t seem to hear anything the townsman said. As if getting tired from all the intrigue, the man would silently left the town, disappearing after delivering his crazy performance. The townspeople were annoyed at first, thinking the deaf man was possessed, but gradually came to term with it. After all, he served as a good clock and left as soon as the last lazy worker rose.
The small village had no sort of fun like that. It was just a small farming village with few people and even fewer things to talk about. Everyday, they tended to their work and kept their noses to themselves. They were content with how things were and they eagerly ignored things that didn’t concern them. The muted young man in the woodcutter house was one such example. Being the only woodcutter in the village, the man of the house and his daughter didn’t talk much with the villagers except for communal meeting or business. They lived a quiet life until one day, a muted man showed up at their doorstep, hungry and tired. The father took him in, the daughter tended to him and the young man stayed with them. That was all the villagers knew and cared to know.
The father was a kind-hearted man. He knew calligraphy and probably did some teaching back in his younger day. When he took on the brute job, he passed on this particular talent to the daughter who would walk to the library in the next town once every two or three days to read and take care of the household chores every other time. She looked just older than ten years old a bit but managed to take care of all three of them. The mother must have suffered ill fate long ago, leaving circumstance to train her daughter to be a capable girl.
It had been the second week since the mute came to this house. He was bedridden on the first two days and only regained his strength on the third. Seeing such a pathetic state, the father told him to stay and he gladly took the offer. The household continued as if nothing had changed, except for a few minor things. The mute followed the father into the woods every morning to help and learnt to write and read every night with the daughter. By the fifth day, the father and daughter realized that the young man wasn’t really mute. He spoke in a non-native tongue to the land, so he had decided to stay mute instead of being mistaken as a possessed being. Furthermore, he had lost his memory of home and had nowhere to go. Despite all that, or maybe because of that, the house still warmly welcomed him as a member of the family.
Every night, the younger sister would point her fingers at things and name them so that her bigger brother could repeat and learn the word. Some other time when the night wasn’t cold, they would venture into the piece of land where the moon shone and started writing on the dirt. She really enjoyed the nighttime now that she had this bigger and dumber brother. Before the mute had come, nighttime would end as soon as she finished cleaning up dinner. Father would venture into town to talk with other elders or simply go to sleep, leaving her to do nothing at all. Now, she had someone in her years to play with. She even got to be the teacher and enjoyed for the first time the usefulness of her knowledge, to show her student how wise she was. The night grew longer and was much more fun.
The warm and cozy family scene lasted for three weeks until a group of bandits raided the village in the middle of a night.
Yoshida castle (southeast of Okazaki), winter 1545
As he lay flat on his back, waking up from his sleep, Rene marched on his train of thoughts as tears slowly streaming down his cheeks. No, not thoughts. For the first time in years, he was able to feel something so powerful that it could disrupt his thinking. Pure frustration. It was worse than what a child would feel having his toy taken away from him. It was worse than seeing people getting killed, whether in this world or the old one. He could have reasoned his way out of this frustration, like he usually would.
Where do I even start?
Three weeks ago, he woke up by a riverbank, alone and empty-handed if not for the ragged clothes on his body. He spent the first day just lying flat and thinking about his course of action. Players respawned when they died. A gamer like him understood that basic mechanic. But he soon realized this was more than just a game. He was brought back to life not as a daimyo but a simple lowlife, a peasant in this warring state. Worse, without his earphone, he couldn’t understand Japanese, not to mention contacting James. But he had enough information to expect what would come his way. There were players from previous game like Miki, a girl he met by chance months ago. They probably understood what would happen to a dead man. They also understood what to do after being killed. He worked his way from there.
Playing the deaf man in one place and the mute in the other was the first thing. He would raise enough attention as the deaf so that Miki or even James would notice and come to his rescue. It was a glimmer of hope, seeing James probably didn’t know his friend was killed and Miki, well Miki just met him. Would she trust him enough to find him? Regardless, playing the mute provide him with security and survival, a shelter from any players with ill intention and the cold and hunger.
But the unexpected thing was the family that took him in. Yeah, this is where it all goes to smoke.
Three weeks were enough time to put in him a sense of tranquility and safety. He got to retreat into the corner of the world, away from all the cunning and planning. No more battles, no more politics and diplomacy, no more rumors and dealing with all those foolish, arrogant and selfish samurais who spoke of honor but dealt with only power and wealth. He hated all that, especially having to put up the daimyo front with all the formality and courtesy in the court. And the uncle, and the younger sister. He thought he would give up playing the deaf once she taught him enough Japanese so they could talk. During the three weeks, he had seriously considered giving up James and just lived the quiet life of a hermit he had dreamed of so often.
It was his shame speaking. He failed at Okazaki. He got himself killed and removed from the game. He had no power. He could no longer keep his promise with Miki, the weight of which crossed his mind so frequently it began to haunt his sleep. His little sister was the boon that cured all that.
How long have I been away from my family?
Sadly, without power, he hopelessly watched them get slaughtered in the raid. That was the frustration that kicked in.
I had no weapons, no training. I tried my best sparring with a guy with a wooden stick and the axe. I got wounded as well. What else could I have done differently?
Never be there in the first place, that’s right. The raid was orchestrated. The royal Tokugawa army came right in the last minute to snatch me away while I was unconscious. They didn’t even save the burning village. It must be him, a player from previous game.
Miki was a player from the previous game. She had told him quite enough about her and her place in this game. Or rather, this world.
You must have felt the same kind of loneliness and frustration I am feeling right now, right? Poor girl. Where are you now? I want to see you. Even more than my friend. I want to tell you that I’m just a common man now. I no longer can fulfill your wish. I no longer have the power to win this game and bring you back o our home world. I want to see you and tell you that I want to give up. I don’t want to go back to that world. And I cannot escape from this one. Please tell me.
He cried her name into his sleep that very night of the raid.
The next morning, he woke up with a calmer mind. He realized he was held captive in a guest room, not a dungeon cell. There was guards posting outside of the sliding door, making sure he wouldn’t leave. Other than that, the room looked nice with paintings on the paper wall and a little furniture. As soon as the guards heard the noise he made, they brought in a modest breakfast and talked to him in Japanese. He just simply nodded and ate the food. He just couldn’t bring himself to care anymore. After breakfast, the guards brought in some clothing and signaled him to change. He did so obediently. The guards then left. It was quite an uneventful morning.
As he sat quietly in the corner, spending time with his thoughts, a man entered the room.
“Hidenaga?” He almost shouted but managed to remain calm. The man named Hidenaga looked at him as if judging then quietly came and sat in the middle of the room.
“I guess English would do, right?”
“I would prefer a conversation to a monologue but well, your attention is enough. Mister daimyo, let me just get this out of the window first. I mean you no harm. And as you might have guessed, I am a player like you, just that I’m from a different round.”
Rene looked up and feigned the slightest hint of curiosity.
“Let me explain a bit, seeing how you don’t know. You see, there are ten human players playing as the ten daimyos of the major clans in this period. You probably figured this much. But this is not the first round of the game. A round finishes once someone achieved victory condition. Whoever achieved it will get out of this reality. Whoever doesn’t, simply get stuck in this reality and continue to play the game until they achieve the condition. And by now, I believe you understand how hard it is to play this game if you’re not a daimyo. So please understand that I wish that we can cooperate and win this game together.”
Hidenaga sat patiently, trying to read him. Rene broke the silence first.
“What is the victory condition?”
“Ah, it should be simple isn’t it? Reunite Japan. In order word, your alliance must claim every provincial castles on the map.”
As if I didn’t know this before.
“I know what you’re thinking. It should be simple if all human players just cooperate with each other and form an alliance, right? Then someone as far north as the Date clan wouldn’t have to march all the way down to Shimazu domain. But here’s the catch. Not everyone is familiar with the game mechanics. Hell, at this point I’m not even sure if this is still the Total War game that we know. That alone limits a lot of potential, since no one knows how to communicate through the diplomatic channel and making alliance and the like. And that’s not even the worst part. I don’t know about you, who you are and where you’re from back in the old world. Let me just tell you this. I’m a 24 years old tank engineer. Think about that.”
Again, the speaker stayed quiet as if waiting for Rene to think and respond. And Rene did think. Human players had different backgrounds and that alone gave them an edge over others. But other than just backgrounds, they could just have different goals. Those who knew about the game would probably try to stay and be a true conqueror whereas those who didn’t would feel trapped and rush to win the game. Conflicting goals would definitely mean different approaches to ending this game. So theoretically, there could be one daimyo who conquered all, resulting in a game finished with only one human player escaped. Miki was one of them who got left behind. Rene knew all this, he just took the time to think about something else.
“Either you just forgot all the cunning you have shown back in Okazaki or you don’t trust me enough to entertain me, right? Tell you what, I’ll do anything to gain your trust. I don’t want to lock you up in a basement, it’s just a waste of talent. And I don’t want to leave you behind either. I don’t think you know this but in order to be in an alliance, a human player who isn’t a daimyo must either be a general or an agent under a major clan. I could just leave you be right now, you’re just a peasant. No, I don’t want that. I want to cooperate with you and whatever friends you have in this game. I’m stuck here for two rounds already. I don’t want any more of it. Will you help me?”
Rene kept his silence for a little bit longer, not because of the cunning front but because of the swelling emotion. He broke and yielded eventually.
“Did you order the raid on the village last night?” As if Rene was expecting a confirmation.
“No, it was pure coincidence. I ordered my men to bring you in today but the raid happened and we received distress calls. I responded, just not in time. I’m very sorry for the family that took you in.”
A brief silence for Rene.
“Fill me in of what happens after my death in Okazaki.” He whispered quietly but sharply.
“Your plans turned out to be ingenious except for the part that the Imagawa got tipped off. They mobilized their army sooner than either Nobutaka or I expect. But either way, once the castle burned down, both of our armies surrounded their broken and tired one. It was an easy battle, a good trade to be honest. One thousand of us for up to ten thousands of them. After that, I became the daimyo, officially acknowledged Nobutaka as a general and ordered him to march south to the Totomi province. I think by now he’s taken the castle and is preparing to defend from the Imagawa last army, roughly two divisions of twenty thousands men. It won’t happen until next spring though, snow is about to come. While he’s doing that, I’m staying here and organize things. I’m thinking of sending an emissary to the Oda land to initiate alliance. After all, I hope the daimyo is still one of ours.”
“One of ours?”
“Human players. Two rounds and I have yet to understand much about this world. Non-human characters can think and act like a human. In their perspective, we’re no different than them. That means they can kill us to become daimyo in our stead. It happens sometimes.”
Rene let Hidenaga finished his word and resumed the silence.
“You’re not one to talk, aren’t you?”
“I simply can’t trust you yet.”
“Isn’t my trust enough? You could have killed me once I admit you into my court and let me restart the game as someone else. I ignored that possibility. And think about it, why not trust me? What else can I do to you now? I have all the reasons and power to do whatever I like to you. But here we are, conversing. Oh, I should have ordered some refreshment. Tea? I’ve grown to like these drinks.”
“No need for that. Where are we now? This isn’t the Okazaki.”
“The castle got burned down. I have it under repaired and restoration for now. We’re in a castle called Yoshida. So, about your trust?”
“I need time to think.”
“Just what I need, your attention.”
Hidenaga stood up.
“I will be back in Okazaki to oversee the restoration and hold courts. I’ll come back in two days. I hope you’ll have your answer by then.” He began to walk toward the doors.
“What if I say no?”
“I’ll simply have you under house arrest. Once I’m about to achieve the condition, I’ll admit you into the court so that you can get out as well. Oh, and here.” He pulled out from his robe a thick textbook and threw it on the ground.
“I wrote this in the second round, a Japanese textbook. You can use some studying in the next two days. Quite hard to talk without the earphone isn’t it?”
Hidenaga exit the stage, leaving Rene with his usual routine of thinking and overthinking.
Mikawa, winter 1550
Hidenaga would be back tomorrow morning. But right now, what worried Rene wasn’t the answer he supposed to give but the decision to leave Yoshida castle or not.
“What are you even waiting for?”
By his sheer skills, Ataki sneaked past the guards and only knocked down the two in front of the door, who now slept soundly inside Rene’s room. The fact that he was here alone confirmed Rene’s doubt since the beginning.
“So when you say you’re from the Hattori domain, are you…”
“Yes, I was a daimyo. Some fool from a province up north planned a riot and have me killed. Can we leave now?”
“You know me by now. I need to think about how leaving would have any consequences. Hidenaga is another human player. But more than that, he is a player from previous round. He had experience and skills that can be useful to both winning this game and putting you back as Hattori’s daimyo so…”
“Who said I want to become the daimyo again?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Two things. First, I realized I’m not cut out to be a daimyo. When I first came to you, I did think about taking advantage of you and become daimyo again. But after those months, I realized I enjoyed being the spy much more. It felt like real power, having men loyal to you and under your command, instead of having a court like yours. Second, Hidenaga was the one that tipped off the Imagawa. Remember a guy name Shuu Yasanuga in your court? He was his intelligence network. While his work is nothing comparable to mine, he gave enough to Hidenaga. And that guy is a beast. He figured everything you planned and advanced himself on that. I don’t know what his goal is but he sure pulled it off.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Just think about it. He is now the daimyo with an army of something like fifteen thousands men and two networks of intelligence, his personal one and the Tokugawa’s. He can just brute force his way through the Imagawa and collapse the Oda clan from within. Last week, my network picked up skirmishes between his spies and the Oda’s already. Whatever he’s planning, he’s planning it big.”
“Wait, that put things into perspective, why me but not the Oda daimyo?”
“I’m sorry what?”
The conversation was obviously going nowhere. The mood was heating up to the point that Ataki had to put his hands on their mouths the two of them to quiet down.
“Say that again? Softer.”
“I mean, you probably know that the Oda daimyo is also a human player…”
“Ah, about that, no, I don’t. Besides, when I was in the Oda domain, he was nowhere to be found. He did nothing at all, basically non existent. Simply put, I can’t make contact.”
“Oh, I think we did an “end turn” that skipped the first three months.”
“What the hell is that?”
Just in an instance, Rene understood a little bit more about the game mechanics and confirmed what Hidenaga told him last morning. Funny how things intertwine, I’ve learned of a thing that is practically useless now.
“So you’re saying the Oda daimyo is another human player like us?”
“Yes, he is. More importantly, he is…” Rene stopped dead in his track. Should he reveal this information now?
“A close ally? Someone you can trust? I figured that much already. This is no time to play doubts against the other. Let me put it this way. My network is useless unless I have a purpose. You have a purpose now but are without power to do anything, am I right? We band together, I’ll continue to work for you and we’ll make it out of this world alive.”
Ataki hit a homerun with that.
“You’re right. Give me one moment to think.”
“That’s more like it.”
Ataki finally smiled, the first for months. He even pulled out his bottle of sake and took a sip out of it, reminded Rene of the old day.
“Oh, speaking of that, the sibling? Inagi and Kake? Takechiyo? How are they doing?”
“I put them somewhere near the provincial border, next to the Oda domain. They’re safe. Although now that you mentioned, I don’t know how I would explain all these to them. What of them?”
“Alright, here’s the plan.”
“That was fast.”
“Shut up, will you? I will stay here and negotiate with Hidenaga tomorrow…”
“Stop cutting in, damn it. The guy knows about Oda but he doesn’t know about my personal alliance with the daimyo. And he needs a guy in the domain as well. I will be that guy. That will be my way out. Until I have further information about this Hidenaga, I will consider my pact and alliance with him. But for now, you will bring the siblings and meet with the Oda daimyo. Ask for sanctuary under my name, he will provide just that. When you’re in, tell the siblings to study whatever they can about the province. And about you, well, you can be of good use to him, but it’s up to you. Either wait for me or do whatever you like. And tell him whatever has happened to me. The name is Oda Nobunaga,… or James. And my name is Rene. If that doesn’t earn him his trust, tell him this code word “Cael”. He’ll understand. Understood?”
“I don’t really like this at all.”
“I can do at least that much. If I can’t even get out of this province, I don’t deserve your service. We’ll meet each other in as late as two weeks. Now I’ll do something about these two guards.”
“Good luck then, boy. Hell, you are a boy now.”
“Make sure the kids are safe.”
Rene crammed in the last words before Ataki left the room.
Author: Minh Vu