South of Owari Province, Early Winter 1545.
It was early morning in a small village half a day ride from Nagoya castle. Winter had come with its wind chills and longer nights. At this point of year, snow had yet to come, but soon, all the green fields in Owari would turn white. It would be very beautiful, yet very solitary at the same time.
Before that time of year came, James had told his court to ride out and inspect the situation in their own province. He wanted to make sure the farmers would have enough food and warmth before real winter hit Owari. Or at least that was what his court believed in. In fact, James was trying to track his friend from the other side of the Mikawa – Owari border. It had almost been a month since he came back from Mino, but he still didn’t hear from Rene. He already knew about the fall of Okazaki and the young daimyo of Tokugawa clan more than two weeks ago from his scout. What he didn’t know then, was the fate of his friend, Rene. This was still just a game, so he doubted Rene died with the Tokugawa daimyo. He either got kicked out of the game, which likely not, or respawned somewhere else, probably in Mikawa.
With this trip, James didn’t bring many of his entourage, only his bodyguard division. He entrusted Nagoya for his wife, Lady Tsuchida, before departure. General Takayama and some other retainers also had their own inspections in designated domains in Owari, while James himself was venturing on a hunt around the province. They would meet him after the hunt in Nagoya and give him debriefs about their inspections. At least that was what everybody believed.
James walked along the dirt road leading to the center of town. Even though it was just early in the morning, people already left their home for work. Most of them paid no attention to him, since for them, he and his entourage were just armed travelers. None of the villagers knew that he was their daimyo. He stopped by a noodle stand and ordered some soba for him and his followers, Midori and Ishimaru.
“It’s been such a long time, m’lord, since I had some soba at a street stand like this,” Ishimaru talked while enjoying his breakfast. “I don’t say castle food is not good, but this reminds me of my childhood. I used to sneak out of our mansion and go to these stands with my friends. I’ve never tried that again since I joined the bodyguard, and I never thought I’d do it again. Until this morning, you told me to go out for breakfast with you. Fifteen years of service, and I thought I knew you to the bone.”
“Apparently you don’t, Akechi” Midori chuckled. “But I don’t think we can blame you. Our lord has changed a lot. Even lady Tsuchida had to admit it.”
“Oh really. What did she say about me? Did you eavesdrop my wife, Haruki?”
“Pardon me, m’lord, but I didn’t. After our trip from Mino, lady Tsuchida occasionally asked me about you and your habits. She was surprised, but also glad that you didn’t drink as much as you did, and didn’t rage with your men at all. She also said that it was the first time you entrusted her with Nagoya. General Takayama or the Akechi were normally the ones you’d choose. There was just one thing she complained about though. She wanted you to visit her chamber more often.” She chuckled at the end of the sentence.
“I see,” James and Ishimaru laughed along as they finished up their soba. “Talking about drinking, you two want to go to the pub today? There are all sorts of stories we can pick up.”
“We follow you wherever you want to, m’lord.”
“The pub it is,” James put some coins down on the table and together, they left.
The pub was a small and shabby place in a corner of the town, with all sorts of drunks and low lives. It wasn’t James’ most favorite place, but it had its own purpose. One could gathered all kinds of fascinating stories here if he knew where to look at. James hoped he could gather some information about Rene’s whereabouts.
“Travelers?” the bartender asked as they picked up some sake from the counter.
“Yeah, kind of.”
“The three of you want that much?” he asked when he saw James signaled he wanted to buy four dozens of sake bottles.
“There are others. These are for them.”
“Understood. Do you need help…”
“Thank you, but we can take care of them on our own.”
James and his entourage grabbed the bottles and retreated to the corner of the room, drinking and watching the room closely. There were all sorts of drunkards, but he only looked for the specific ones: the ones from Mikawa.
A young woman then approached them from the other corner of the room. She had a grey traveling robe with hood and a bamboo traveling hat on, but James could still see her face under its shadow. Fine lines, with graceful yet strong touches.
“Morning gentlemen, and lady,” she greeted them as she came closer.
“I’m no lady,” Midori answered without looking up. Her eyes fixed on her own cup.
“And we are no gentlemen either. But we can be gentle though. Care for a drink?” Ishimaru looked at her cheerfully after noticing a slight approval nod from his master.
“You are indeed gentle. The name’s Miki. Yours?” She sat down opposite to James.
“We are the Kobayashis. My name is Ishiku. He is Satashi, my brother, and she is Yuko, my sister in law.” Ishimaru said as he was pouring wine into Miki’s cup.
“Are you good with those?” She looked at the katanas lying on the table.
“Decent enough. Why?”
“Do you mind giving me a good spar? I haven’t met anyone with decent swordsmanship for a while.”
“I won’t refuse a good fight,” James spoke up after leaving the replying job for Ishimaru. “Let’s take it outside then. I know a nearby place where we can fight freely.”
“It’s alright Yuko,” James gently smiled at Midori when she touched his shoulder. From her eyes, he could tell her concern for him.
“The three of you can come at me all together. I’m ready,” Miki said when they were at the field. It was a big grassland a few hundred meters away from the pub, lying outside a small forest.
“Isn’t that a bit unfair for you? Let’s say one at a time.” James aimed a smile at Miki, and she could instantly felt a sense of power in his eyes. They might be more dangerous than met the eye. “Ishiku?”
“Thank you. Let’s get this started then,” Ishimaru stepped forward, drawing his blade. The katana was heavy, and designed as a two-handed weapon, but he swung it around easily with just one hand.
They circled around each other, waiting for a moment to strike. Then, suddenly, Ishimaru strode forward, swinging his blade quickly at his opponent. She was surprised, but blocked the blade quickly and repelled every incoming attack. The sound of metal clash against metal resonated in the air, reminding James about the battlefield. The first time he fought beside Midori.
They exchanged blows for a few minutes, then retreated back to circling around their opponents. Then they dashed in to test each others’ abilities again. There were moments Miki seemed to be overwhelmed by James’ bodyguard, but somehow she could always regain her posture.
She’s good. Being able to hold ground against Ishimaru is not an easy job. James thought to himself while watching the duel. He already finished his first sake bottle. Probably he shouldn’t drink more.
“That’s enough,” James said and Ishimaru instantly retreated away from Miki. “It was a good duel, young lady. You are a good swordsman. We’d spar with you longer if we don’t have some jobs to take care of.”
“Thank you. I really enjoy it. But before you leave, I have a favor to ask.”
“I see. What do you need?”
“A friend of mine is being captured in Yoshida castle, or so I believe. You are capable swordsmen, so I want to ask you to help me rescuing him. I will pay you, not as handsomely as you may want, but still enough for that.”
“Is he your lover? What does he do? And how come did he get captured?”
“He’s just a normal student with a very brilliant mind. I am not sure why he got captured, but it doesn’t matter to me. I still want to rescue him. I cannot do it on my own though, so I need your help. And he’s not my lover… just a friend. A good friend.”
“We can help you, on one condition.” James looked straight into the girl’s eyes. “After rescuing your friend, I want you to serve under the Oda’s banner. We are looking for talents, and you are one. If your friend wants, we can take him in and let him serve accordingly to his ability.”
“What if I say no?”
“Then it’s a shame, young girl. We can offer you so much for your service. Fame, fortune, glory. Your pick. After our lord unite all Japan, your name will be remembered in history. Unless it’s a safe and quiet life you want, but you don’t seem to be the type.”
“I understand. When do we depart?”
“Tomorrow morning, if you want to start this quest as soon as possible. A squad of seven will accompany you though. We were ordered to return to Nagoya soon, so we cannot go with you. But believe in those who accompany you. They are capable men and women themselves. You will take charge, since it’s your quest we are going to do.”
“I don’t have problem with that.”
“It is settled then. They will wait for you here at first light. After that, you are in charge.”
“Thank you.” Miki smiled as James gave her a bottle of sake.
“Consider this your welcome gift. We will have a decent welcome ceremony once you’re back from rescuing your friend.”
After the brief meeting with Miki, James led his party back to their camp, lying at the side of the forest. It was a small camp, with several tents protected by wooden fences. It was quite a cheerful one, with laughter and smiles flying everywhere. It was quite a relaxing trip for the men, at least for those who were not burdened with planning. As he got back, he sent his bodyguards to their duties and spent the whole afternoon reading some provincial records. Assuming Rene’s support from Tokugawa had lost, he now needed to find a place to defend Owari. Abandoning the towns and just holding up in Nagoya was one option, but it would result in dire circumstances for his clan afterwards, given the chance he could defeat Imagawa or even Tokugawa. Until now, every time he thought about Rene, he still felt bitter. Killing Yoshimoto and ten thousand men army wasn’t an easy task, but for James, it just wasn’t worth the trade.
During all the time he was reading, James could hear Midori’s slow breath as she was sitting opposite to him doing something with a piece of paper. She was so calm, with nothing but fascination for the thing she was scribbling in front of her. James didn’t know how many times he had seen her focusing, but he never got tired of it. Different from him, there was always strength and determination in her eyes, sometimes fascination. He didn’t realize how long he’d been looking at her until she looked up at him and blushed.
“I intended to call you but you looked so focused that I didn’t want to bother.”
“It’s alright, m’lord. What do you have need of me?”
“I don’t remember now. It just slipped off my mind.” He looked away and thought he might hear something at the back of the tent where his sleeping chamber was. Footsteps?
“Anyway, before dinner, let’s summon the Eight. I have a plan.”
“At once, m’lord,” with a quick nod, Midori left the tent to call for the rest of her comrades, leaving the piece of paper folded on his table. He looked at it for a while, wondering what she could be doing with it. He could feel the mysterious aura emitting from its surface, inviting him to open and see the inside. He reached over and accidentally knocked the pencil off the table. Probably not now, he retracted his hand and picked up the pencil laying on the floor. Even though she just left the room for a moment, it already got cold. James stood up and left the table for the brazier next to the war table, looking at Japan map.
A chill wind blew across the room, knocked down a few toy flags, flashed the candle light, and froze him to the bone. Holding tighter to his robe, as if he could feel the cold coming in with the flapping sound of his tent.
His bodyguards came in soon afterwards, while he was staring at the map.
“Do you have anything new this morning gentlemen?”
“I heard that some of our spies encountered some Tokugawa’s earlier this week outside Nagoya. We killed three of them but the rest escaped. We didn’t lose anyone and trying to track them down. Should we send Ryukage squads out for this, m’lord? We don’t know what information they had gathered.”
“No need. There was no important information they can take anyway. Our trump cards are all in my minds, not on papers. We need to save every single soldier and agent for future conquests. It’s not worth it to send some squads to follow those spies. It may be a trap. Besides, I don’t want anyone to know about Ryukage’s existence. Mentioning about them, how’s their training?”
“We just finished training the third squad, so currently we have three eight-men squads at your disposal. Right now, they are waiting for your order in their sanctuary half a day south of Nagoya. The trainees will get here later tonight according to your earlier command.”
“Good. Also, are we done with building the other hideout?”
“It will take at least another week, m’lord. Since we couldn’t use man-power and resource in your name most of the time, it took longer to finish.”
“As long as we have it before winter ends, that will be fine. Then, we will have three places for our Ryukage to stay. The tunnels under Nagoya, Yukiji south of Nagoya, and Zenshiji in the eastern forests will be enough. Now for the Tokugawa, do we have any update?
“After Okazaki’s incident, the new daimyo temporarily relocated the court to Yoshida castle. However, he still commuted back and forth to Okazaki probably to supervise the construction. From its look, Okazaki will be finished at the end of winter this year. Also, he sent general Nobutaka with the majority of their army down south, per chance is to annihilate the Imagawa once and for all.”
“Was that the plan you mentioned about, m’lord, about eliminate the Imagawa’s threat?”
“Not quite, but close enough. I used to form a secret pact with the former daimyo to deal with the Imagawa. But now as the new daimyo is there, I will have to see if I can co-operate with him, or should we just eliminate him all at once. Either way, we’ll have to make it quick. If they push straight through Suruga, we have around a year to take preemptive strike against the Tokugawa. If the daimyo is smart, we should expect a convoy from them soon. They may want an alliance, or at least a peace treaty from us.”
“Should we go back soon before they arrive, m’lord?”
“We should. But before we leave, I want a Ryukage squad in Mikawa to setup a safe house and put surveillance on Tokugawa’s court. The second squad will deploy near our border to support the first one, and the third one station south Owari to serve as communication channel with the squads in Mikawa, and the second reinforcement if needed. For the trainees, Ishimaru will lead them to meet with Miki as our deal tomorrow morning. Consider this their on-the-field training, and have them on masks. The other standby squads can provide assists, but only on intelligence. Our Ryukage squads must not reveal themselves under any circumstances. Before they go on for mission, I want to meet them here tomorrow morning first. Just to say goodbye and bid them luck.”
“I will pass the order out at once, m’lord.”
“Good. Now if we don’t have anything else, you are good to go. Enjoy the countryside and walk around the area to see if we can pick up any new information. I want to get some dinner for now.”
His bodyguards bowed and left the room, but he signaled Midori to stay. When the others were far enough, James walked towards his sleeping chamber of the tent with a cocky smile on his face.
“You can come out now, whoever you are. My bodyguards are gone, except for this beautiful lady out here. I mean you no harm, just curious what you are doing here.”
“You are sharp, I have to admit, Lord… uh what is your name?” A man in black came out from James’ sleeping chamber. He looked very young when he pulled down his mask, probably around twenty, or early thirty at most.
“Shouldn’t you introduce yourself first, young man? I am not only your elder but also your friendly host.”
“My name is Hitachi,…”
“I am Kobayashi Satashi. This is my wife, Yuko. So how do I have this honor?”
“Are you Lord Oda’s retainer, lord Kobayashi?”
“I am. How do you get that information, I am not sure. However, you still haven’t answered my question.”
“I have high value information for Lord Oda Nobuhide, m’lord. I am trying to gather information on his location.”
“You see, none of us retainers knows of his location. He’s on a hunt somewhere around Owari. That is all we were told. If you want to meet him though, I can introduce you to him privately when we return to Nagoya. It is pretty much impossible to sneak up on him like you did with me tonight. His bodyguards are exceptional.”
“I see. So what’s the catch, m’lord?”
“What do you want in order for you to help me, lord Kobayashi?”
“A few good words in his ear will do.”
“I see. I have one more condition. I have two other companions, so they will also need place to stay too.”
“I don’t see a problem there. Get your friends, and meet me again. This time, take the front door.”