Part 21: Limbo

Mikawa, Winter 1550

After meeting with Ataki the previous night, Rene greeted the human player Matsudaira Hidenaga the next morning. The two of them sat face to face in a basement room with all four walls made of paper and spent the better time of the meeting engaging in staring contests.

“So, you want to go to Owari and act as my envoy to form an alliance with Oda, as proof of our cooperation?” Hidenaga spoke up after winning his twentieth round.

“Yeah. As you said, you want to push through to Suruga. It’d be hard for you if there’s an Oda division behind your back, threatening to invade Mikawa at any time, right?”

“Do you know how to form an alliance?” Hidenaga replied after a long wait.

“I suppose I do. Is there a kind of alliance that I’m not aware of?”

“Well, there is, one that would tie the human players together. In previous rounds, no matter what kind of alliance we found, whether officially between clans or just between the human daimyo, we couldn’t win with an alliance, although all of the provinces are under our alliance control. So in the end, it was simply a game with no AI daimyo. Human daimyos fought each other, splitting all the human players into factions. So, even though I said last time that it would be so easy if we all band together, that had never happened. Or at least, for this generation, that had never happened.”

“What do you mean this generation?”

“Now, this is confusing so listen closely. Because this is a game, we have terms like “a game”, “a round”, and “a generation”. Every time ten new human players are spawned as daimyos, a new round begins. Every time someone successfully controls all of Japan, a game ends. So clearly, a game can has many rounds, right? But when a game ends, not everyone gets to go home, since not everyone is in the winning clan. So some might be left behind and continue into a new game. We call that a generation. When a game ends with absolutely no human players remain, a generation ends. Or in other words, when a new round starts with no human players from previous rounds, only ten new human players exist, then a new generation starts.”

Hidenaga paused and looked at Rene who was clearly saying “so what” with his face.

“Theoretically, there is only one way to escape this world, but I know for sure there are two ways to end one round. A round ends with either condition, someone wins or everyone loses. Now, how everyone loses is simple. Every round starts with ten new players, call them original players, spawned as ten daimyos, right? At any given time, if these ten players are not daimyos, the round ends, a new round starts with new players spawned in as daimyos. You might have figured once a human daimyo is killed, the player can work his way up to become a daimyo again so we need to keep at least one original player alive as daimyo at any time. But that’s besides the point. The critical thing is, the new players only know as much as the old players do. Since they got stuck, they carry on the information they have already known to the new rounds. Think about it, tricks, tips, geographical intel, weather forecast, mechanics, rules and laws, units, treasures, anything.”

“Ah”. Rene slipped a sound and that satisfied Hidenaga.

“So, you understand?”

“As new players, we have to go find those old players as soon as possible to gain information from them.”

“Precisely. And since there’s no way to know if a generation has ended, there’s a possibility that one hermit somewhere in this world has known everything from the beginning but just refuse to show up.”

Rene pondered over the words. There were no ways to know if a generation had ended, but there were ways to tell if a game or a round had. Theoretically, a human player could disappear from the radar and simply leaded a quiet life, off the grid. If that was the case, other human players wouldn’t have known about him and wouldn’t include him in a clan to help him leave. Yet, he could gather information about the events that had happened, kept it to himself, and carried to the next game, sharing that with new players.

“I thought there are twelve clans? With the Otomo and Ikko Ikki?” Rene cut off his thought on the terms and pointed to a detail.

“Are those DLCs? When I last played the game in real life, I didn’t recall playing those two. Hell, should be interesting.” Hidenaga chuckled.

“Knowing all this, you must have known other human players from previous rounds?”

“Well now, we all have secrets we can’t share.”

Hidenaga laughed and drank his cup of tea. Somehow, Rene doubted it was filled with sake.

“So? Well, I don’t think you would know how to form that kind of alliance. Given that, I want you to stay here and become my retainer, using that as proof of our cooperation.”

Rene didn’t answer immediately and pondered over the possibility. Going to James’ Owari was the initial plan, but given the Oda court and his ability, Rene simply had nothing to do there, whether commanding the army or administrating the court. The real motive behind it was only to comfort Rene, seeing an old friend and hiding from the world. He thought he had had enough of this game. It just reminded him of his old self, the same old incompetent and unambitious. But his usual rationality paused the desire. The plan wasn’t optimal. Whatever his goal was, to help James or to play this game on his own, going to Owari wasn’t the answer.

“And how so?” Despite his thought, Rene would want to put up a fight.

“An alliance with a clan or with a human player is simple. You go through the court, give them the order and they’ll take care of the rest, sending envoy, writing documents, stuff like that. If the human player is a daimyo, either go through your court or just tell him to tell his. If he isn’t a daimyo, you write a contract, you two both sign it and that’s it. So for that Oda guy, I’m just gonna send an envoy, whether you’re in that envoy or not makes no difference. But if you stay here, you can actually do something.”

Hidenaga looked at the indifferent Rene and paused.

“You do know we need the court to run things, right?”

“Yes, what about it?”

“Take a look at this then.”

Hidenaga brought a roll of paper out of his robe and flattened it on the coffee table sitting between them. At first glance, Rene thought he would collapse. It was a list of names and a title on top said “Members of the Tokugawa court”. Almost every names on the list had been crossed out with a red line dashed through it. Only four names remained uncrossed, and two of them made Rene break a sweat. “Takechiyo Inagi” and “Ataki Yasahigi” sat next to each other, a few lines below “Shuu Yasanuga” and directly above “Matsudaira Nobutaka”. The font of the words indicated that the piece of paper was one of those the game world provided, like the iPad and the earphone. Despite that, Rene didn’t recall having ever seen that piece of paper before.

“Well, you don’t have to explain Ataki and Takechiyo. Seeing that they are your close aides, I won’t lay a finger on them, as long as you keep them in check, ok? And forgive me, I took this piece of paper when you’re in the three months “end turn”. But given that, you don’t know everything about the court right?”

“I’ve never given those two an official title, how…” Rene murmured quietly to himself.

“That’s the beauty of this game. Sometimes you don’t have to do things. The almighty god in this game just goes do things for you. I don’t know the exact mechanics but you can only admit people into your court when you’re a daimyo, and there are two ways to do that. One, you give him enough high profile orders that only a commander or a retainer or higher title can do. Two, you write a contract and the both of you sign it. That’s how I come to know about your little friend Ataki.”

Hidenaga hid a cheeky smile, paused a bit to pour more tea in his cup and continued.

“That aside, this is exactly why I want you in the court. The bigger a court is, the less efficient it becomes. Then there’s corruption, chains of command, internal disputes and dividing factions, you name it. I admit you into the court, you hire all the retainers you want and you keep things running. I can even go so far as give you total control of the province as long as you give me enough men to field the frontline. You can go to Owari to fetch those two but I want you back here, when I’m heading to Suruga. So, what do you say?”

While Rene did nothing as usual, Hidenaga prepared an inkstone and a brush on the table. Then he pulled out another piece of paper. It resembled some sort of contract written in both English and Japanese with a signature at the bottom, presumably Hidenaga’s.

“I haven’t got the hang of this but, apparently, if you sign something like this, your name will show up in this piece of paper. Something like this is really nothing short of godlike, and how lucky we are to see proof of a fantasy game world. That is my offer, what do you say?”

Rene looked over to the list of court members that had something short of thirty names on it. He unconsciously thought about the Okazaki fight. So that was it, one stone for three birds, ten thousand men, the daimyo position and the encumbered court. Most of the court members got stuck with Rene that day and went up in flame with the castle. He chuckled having made that realization.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.” Rene stopped immediately and brought his teacup up to his mouth to hide the grin.

With this option to stay in Mikawa, Rene could essentially be the de facto daimyo for a short time, until Hidenaga returned. He would have the capability to help James and coordinate the plan with him. Furthermore, he could actually do things instead of running away or being defenseless. His mind started racing with things to do after the signing. First off, found a way to call back Ataki and Inagi, then reworked the treasury, the military, the administration, then finished the Okazaki… The list went on as he unconsciously reached out for the brush.

“What stops you?” Hidenaga asked as Rene stopped his hand, the brush barely touched the paper.

“I don’t know my name. I’ve died once, I’m not Hirotada anymore.” Rene looked up and showed an honest smile.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right though, you can only sign with this world’s name, not your real name. Figure you should have a name before signing it.”

“Heck, I don’t even know my name just yet, give me a second.” Rene laughed and went for the teacup. “Speaking of, am I just going to call you Hidenaga from now on?”

“Yeah, safer this way, for me at least. I won’t ask for your real name. Oh, and sign it in English, you don’t know Japanese anyway, right?”

Somehow, this feels like registering a name for a RPG game.

Rene kept the thought to himself and signed the contract.

Takechiyo Shinji.

The name gradually appeared out of thin air on the list of court members.

“Oh, you learned Hiragana fast. But what is Shinji?”

“I just like the sound of that. Does it really have to make sense?”

“No, it doesn’t. At most, people are just gonna comment “what a weird name” and move on. So, that’s that. Welcome to the Tokugawa clan.”

Hidenaga raised his teacup and Rene raised his. Turned out it was sake after all.

“So, what now?” Rene slammed the cup down onto the table.

“What do you mean what now?”

“I mean, I’m a part of your court now. Technically, I’m under your command, right?”

“About that, I don’t really fancy seeing you as a subordinate. I told you already. But that said, we’ll be working together so we should have some sort of mutual understanding and guideline…”

“No, I mean, what do I do now?”

The question took Hidenaga off guard.

“Are you expecting an order from me?”

“Are you giving me full control?”

“No, but I thought you would at least give me a suggestion on what you’d want to do. What do you want to do now?”

The question struck Rene hard. What did he want to do?

“We already know what my course of action is. I’ve already made you my court member, handed to you the whole affairs in Mikawa while I’m making myself comfortable in Totomi and preparing for Suruga. We, yes, we as the Tokugawa clan, also want to make peace and hopefully cooperation with the Oda clan. And besides all that, I want to restore the Okazaki castle. In this scenario, what is your course of action?”

Hidenaga leaned across the table and picked up Rene’s cup after finishing his line. He looked into the cup and continued.

“Surely enough, this isn’t enough sake to knock out your consciousness, right? Maybe you initially intended to go to Owari but now that’s out of the window, you need time to think?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Rene replied softly.

“So, how about this? Take over the Okazaki restoration ordeal. Up until now, I have to take care of everything to minimalize the court and it’s a pain in the ass. Rest tonight, go to the castle with me tomorrow and I’ll hand you the task. In the meantime, we can work out your course of action.”

“Then what are you going to do after that?”

“Heading to Totomi’s central castle and rally a defense there. I’ve been recruiting five thousands men and we’re ready to go after a week. Once I’m gone, send a courier if you need. So, anything else?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Good. I’ll have the guard brought you to the guest room and prepared food, maybe a geisha if you want.” Hidenaga extended his hand, shook Rene’s and began to head out for the door.

“Oh, one more thing.” He stood by the door and looked back. “You prepared some good number of horse before the Okazaki accident and an order to send them to the provincial border. Is that some sort of goodwill to the Oda clan? Anyway, your stuff, I just carried out the order. Use that to negotiate with Oda if needed. I’ll talk to you about that later.”

Rene waited until Hidenaga vanished from his vision, then reached for the kettle and poured himself another cup of sake. Hell, I don’t even remember the horse.

 

 

Over the course of the next week, Rene engaged in what he would like to think of as internship training and information exchange. For the former, Rene gradually took over the Okazaki castle restoration, managing all the minor details and adding some features that Hidenaga wanted. He had come to admire Hidenaga, even just a bit, since he realized Hidenaga had practically done everything to keep the province running on his own, without any court member to help, much less to delegate. For the latter, the two of them, Rene and Hidenaga, would come back to Yoshida castle, stayed in a dungeon room and proceeded to tell stories quite literally. Initially, they talked about official work, things like the current deteriorating state of Mikawa province with thievery and bandits, the human players and the AI, the crumbling Imagawa army and the Tokugawa’s might stationing in Totomi province. They would also talked about Inagi and Ataki, how those two came to service while Rene carefully disguised them as AI characters. Then Rene would assure Hidenaga about a prospect of peace and cooperation with the Oda clan and about how things would work out from there, what came after Suruga. Rene did consider revealing the fact James was Oda Nobuhide as a sign of good faith, but quickly dropped the idea since he felt as if he was betraying James.

Once all of those talks became boring, they talked about smaller stories, about how things happened before Rene came and the glorious war stories Hidenaga had lived. Most of the time, Rene sufficiently entertained the storyteller by being a dedicated listener. Once in a while, he would remind himself of the fact that this storyteller had fooled both him and Ataki about him being a human player like them. Rene couldn’t deny the man’s talent, but he couldn’t be so carefree as he did with Ataki.

During the week, besides overseeing the restoration, Rene would also accompany Hidenaga in his recruiting and training troops. During this time, Hidenaga also had Rene ordered an envoy to the Oda clan to initiate diplomacy. While the notion was unnecessary, Rene played his part and sent the envoy, which would arrive in Owari within days. Once the week ended, Hidenaga leaded the troops north to Totomi to reinforce Nobutaka, while Rene stayed behind and played the court as he had always been.

On the day of his departure, Rene received a surprise. When the sun rose on that day, Hidenaga entered his room while he was reading the Japanese textbook out of boredom and threw on the worktable a wrapped up object.

“What is it?” Rene asked without even looking up.

“Open it up, consider it my parting gift.”

Rene looked at the man through the peripheral then lowered the book and reached for the object. As he unwrapped it, he found out it was a slightly burnt yet functional Bluetooth earphone.

“What the…”

“I found it among the ruins of Okazaki before I found you. I have no use for it but you do, since you’re essentially a deaf and a mute without it, right? Not so much luck with the iPad, pierced by an arrow and broken in two. Anyway, there should be buttons with number somewhere on it. Each original human player has one of these, and they are numbered. You can try and find them by tuning it, like selecting radio stations. You do know what it is, right?”

“Yeah, of course I do. I’m not that young.”

Rene turned over the earphone and found a small sliding wheel like that of a radio. He realized he had never taken a close look at it before.

“Anyway, change of plan. The Oda envoy arrived late last night. Their daimyo, Oda Nobuhide, wants to meet directly to discuss the terms of an alliance. Judging from the name, he is still a human player, so I’ll accept their demand and set up the meeting.”

Rene looked up from the earphone and stared at Hidenaga for one second straight.

“What are you going to do about the alliance?”

“As I said, the goal is for every human players to band together. Of course, I want this alliance to happen. But he’ll have to have a bit of blind faith.”

“Blind faith?”

“Meet me alone at the provincial border. Their envoy had already sent a bird back to their master so I’ll hear from them soon enough.”

“May I ask why?”

“If he’s willing to meet me as Hidenaga, not knowing I’m a human player, he’s worthy of someone to work with. Ah, but that means you’ll be going to Totomi in my stead.”

“Wait what?” Rene stuttered. “You do know military handling isn’t my forte. And that’s more than five thousand men.”

“Six thousand, one thousand attendants. But well, you’re a court member now. See if you can promote someone to handle all that. Also, it’s a good way to bond with your men, isn’t it? You’ll move out in five hours so better pack things up. I’m off.”

He said the last line in Japanese and left the room with a loud laugh while Rene held the earphone in his trembling hands.

Later that day, Rene found himself in the central tent, resting beside the road connecting Mikawa and Totomi. The atmosphere strangely reminded him of the quick march back to Okazaki castle from the coastal region where he encountered Nobutaka just months ago. The night set in and killed the light, put on the marching army a lazy and tiresome mood. The order from Hidenaga came swiftly and not without reasons so Rene had nothing to argue against it. Furthermore, Hidenaga had already awarded him with a surprising gift and it would be hard to stay in Yoshida castle and talk with James without Hidenaga noticing. Sitting alone in his tent, Renebrought out the earphone and started tinkering with it. It took him some minutes, but eventually he made it work.

“Hello?”

“…” Static filled the other end of the line for a while, prompting Rene to think that the earphone didn’t work anymore.

“Who’s this?” It came back with a response much later. It was James’ voice.

“Rene. Do you believe it?”

“…No. Prove it.”

“We did a project back in high school. It was called Cael.”

“…”

A bit more static then erupted a loud noise on the other side.

“You, bastard. Where the hell have you been?”

“Dead. Thought you should have known that already.” They both burst out laughing. It really calmed Rene down after all the turbulence.

“So damn good to hear your voice, mate. What’s the sit rep?”

“There’s a lot for that. I want to ask a few things first. I’ve sent three people to you, a guy name Ataki and a brother and sister pair, Inagi and Kake, have you met them yet?”

“I think I’ve met the guy Ataki, although right now he is addressing me as a retainer, lord Kobayashi. So he was your guy?”

“He’s a human player, former daimyo of the Hattori clan, treat him nicely. He’s a decent one. Did he bring the two?”

“I’ve met them, nice kids, where did you pick them up? Anyway, they’re all safe now, taking shelter under Kobayashi’s name.”

“Good, good. I’m glad they’re safe. Next on the list, give me some time on the horse trade, I’ll make my deliver.”

“Good, but that’s beside the point. Where the hell are you? I’ve got Ryukage squads all over Mikawa and couldn’t find you. Just give me a location and they’re ready to burst you out and get your ass back to…”

“No, no, cease it. Your envoy sent words back right? Hidenaga is a human player, I have control over the court now and a lot more. Here’s the sit rep, and we’re in a bigger mess than we thought, mate.”

“Sounds interesting, try me.”

************************************************************

Author: Minh Vu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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