Owari, Winter 1545.
He stood on top of a hill, looked at the moon and wondered when the last time he saw such a bright and full night sky was. He hadn’t spent time outside enjoying his surroundings like this for a while. He was so captivated in Rene’s business. There were new troubles at hand, but he believed he could handle them all with his friend.
“I miss seeing you relaxed and peaceful like this, m’lord.”
“I miss it too.” He turned around and saw Midori walking towards him with some warm snack and umeshu. “I just got some from the kitchen. I think you may enjoy some.”
“You know me best, Midori. Thank you,” he took a bottle from her, and as he reached out for the food basket, she retreated her hand.
“Umeshu for you, and the food for me, m’lord. It’s just for me, unless…” she stopped in the middle of the sentence, hid the food behind her back and winked wickedly at James.
“You dare to tease me? You’re in big trouble young lady,” he laughed as she turned around and took off to the forest nearby with joyful laugh that delighted his mind. “Get back here!”
Just as he chased after Midori, James had a weird feeling that someone was watching them. “That’s strange. I thought Ishimaru had cleared the perimeter. There’s something wrong going on.”
“Haruko, come here.” He shouted and hoped Midori caught his implication. They didn’t put on their armor, but they still had their katanas. When the girl came to him, he saw all the playfulness disappeared. She was the Midori he knew on the battlefield.
They hurried back to the camp, and the first thing they saw were dead bodies of James’ bodyguards. “Holy shit! What the hell happened?!”
As they slowly moved into their camp, they saw more and more dead bodies. They were all so warm, with their blood still gushing out of their wounds. All the alarm bells and drums were sabotaged. “Assassins…”
He head some footsteps approaching them fast, beating on the damp grassland. James quickly unsheathed his sword and swung over his back to block the incoming strike.
“M’lord!” Ishimaru stopped his blade in the middle and retrieved it back when he realized James. “We tried to find you everywhere.”
“Assassins, m’lord. Just a few moments ago I sensed something wrong when our hourly patrol didn’t come back on time, and I didn’t hear from our perimeter either. I summoned the rest of the Eight and immediately rushed to where you told you were, leaving only Hotaru to lead the camp. When we got there, you two were nowhere to be seen. Then I came back here. Everybody died. Hotaru got his throat slit. We patrolled the camp for survivors and pray that you came back here.”
“Lucky you found us. Whoever they were, they were good killing all our camp undetected. Hotaru was excellent at counter espionage…”
“What do we do, m’lord?”
“The bodies are warm. They must still be near. We need to check the command tent to see if they stole anything. Single file formation. Ishimaru take the lead. Hatake cover the back. Haruko behind me.”
The samurais quietly nod and followed the order. The moon was still bright and the sky starry, but the ground was no more damp with dew and fresh air. It was soaked with blood and stink of death. James followed Ishimaru between the tents of their camps with all of his senses heightened. He could sense the wind blowing through his hair and the grass bend beneath his feet. They said battlefields were horrifying, but he thought it was nothing compared to this. At least your enemies on the battlefield bore flags and banners and colors. You knew what you were fighting against. In these kinds of situations, you didn’t even know who they were. That was the moment every shadow came alive with tinges of death and fear.
They made the last turn for the commander tent and all they could hear were the crickets and their footsteps. They entered the tent, and everything was still the same. All the documents and their money were left untouched. James almost thought nobody entered the tent while they were away until he saw some white sakura’s petals on his seat lining up in a straight line. “Sakura! At this time of year? That’s impossible… There’s something foul with these flowers.”
There was some kind of chilly aura coming off them, and at the moment he touched the tip of a petal, it crumbled into dust.
“What is this sorcery…” Ishimaru was startled when he saw the petals falling apart.
“I heard it was called ghost flowers. Legend told there was a kind of strange white flower just like sakura growing high up in Shinano mountains. When I was little, my parents told me only the dead could see this flower.”
“Well, apparently we’re still alive,” Matsui laughed. Everybody looked at the youngest guy in the group, and immediately he stopped laughing. His laugher lifted the mood of the group only for a slight moment. Right after that, all slid into dead silence.
“Alright guys, Matsui was true. We’re still alive, and have a meeting with Tokugawa Hidenaga tomorrow. We need to take some rest. Kankata, Masayori, Kagesettsu, you were on the first guarding shift. Hatake, Ishimaru, and Matsui, you were on the second shift. When a group is on guard, the rest will sleep in this room. Nobody goes anywhere alone.”
“Understood, m’lord!” All of the bodyguard resonated together. They were firm, but there was shakiness in their spirit. They were all veterans except for Midori, but somehow she was the toughest of them all. There was no slight sense of fear in her eyes.
“Good. To your post. Haruki with me. We will go to the sleeping chamber and get some blankets. The rest of you gathered all the things we need for departure and bring them in this room. We will move first light tomorrow.”
Once the rest of his bodyguards were gone to their duties, James held his breath and pushed through the veil separated his study and sleeping chamber. There was no more than a slight shiver of the air and then he felt the chill of a katana blade at his neck.
“I thought we agreed that you will come in alone.”
“You were not even alone. How many do you have? Nine?”
“That didn’t even sound like a question.”
“Nine petals. I guess you are the first. Where are the others? Under my bed or by the window curtain? You were not the first to hide in my sleeping chamber. I don’t know why you people are so attracted to this place. Care how my bed smell like?”
“You’re funny. And sharp. Come out people. We’re detected.” He saw two more shadows came out of their hiding places. He had never thought that his sleeping chamber in a combat tent had that many place to hide. Five more hopped into the room through the window, make him question the purpose of that window in his bedroom. Sightseeing, maybe. So that makes nine.
“So what’s this ordeal all about? Why not kill me already?”
“Oh our daimyo isn’t afraid. How manly and sexy. Shame, you’re a dead man already.” Even with the moonlight, he couldn’t see the girl’s face. From the voice and posture, he could tell she was a girl grew up in a noble family. But she wasn’t obedient or ladylike. She was naughty and rebellious. And sexy.
He was so curious what her face looked like behind that mask she was wearing. White metal mask, with simple black war paints and two pointed cat ears. She circled around him just like a lioness toying with her prey. He could feel the blade slowly creeping around his neck. “At first I just want to kill all of you here and be done with it. But you see, you make me want to challenge you to a one on one. See if the Oda daimyo can beat a nameless person like me.”
“What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch, my daimyo. You lose, you’ll die. You lose, you’ll still die. And so does all the rest of your men. This camp will be your grave tonight.”
“Alright. Challenge accepted. I will not go down without putting up a decent fight. At least I hope you can fight as well as you can sneak up to people.” James taunted the girl and drew his katana. An adrenalin rush replaced the fear in his mind, made him feel a strange kind of ecstasy. He looked at Midori for the last time, and thought he saw a drop of tear trickling down her cheek. Something stung his heart forced a tear out of the corner of his eye. It broke him to see her like that, knowing that she’d witness his death. It was her duty…
The assassin drew a short blade on her left hand and took James’ surge head on. They exchanged blows, faster and harder each time, and didn’t even stop to observe or rest like a normal sword fight. Both of them were sucked in their own sword fight that they forgot about their surroundings. All of his bodyguards arrived in the room as soon as they heard the noise of metal clashing against each other, but Midori prevented them from interfering. Both sides had their swords drawn, but stood still and watched their leaders fighting ferociously.
After a few blows, James and the assassin broke through the canvas wall of the tent and brought the fighting under the moonlight. It was so bright that their blades turned silver and each cut became a flash of light in the middle of the night. For more than once, his eyes met hers, and there was something exchanged between the two at that moment. James didn’t know how long they had been fighting, since it seemed to last forever. He could feel his robe stick to his back wet with sweat, and tears trickle down his cheek. He didn’t know why, but it didn’t stung his eyes. He thought he could see further and sharper. He heard the wind howling in the forest like a requiem for him and his bodyguards, and pushing the grasses soaked with blood beneath his blood, as if trying to lift him in the air. With each step he took, he felt the blood clung to his heel and feet, made it more slippery but also faster.
The more they fought, the more he became the fight. The air around them grew thicker with sweat and aroma. He dashed and slashed and dodged amongst the midst of a sweet smell. Never for a single moment did he recognize the sweet smell lingering in the air. He just felt comfortable and alive in that one single moment they exchanging blows. Something salty touched the tip of his tongue.
Was it sweat, or was it tear? Was it his, or was it hers? He’d never know the answer.
And for one step, she missed a block. And he missed a dodge. His blade slid on her mask from the eyebrow to a corner of her mouth, created a deep cut on the mask and a shrieking noise. Her blade slashed from his eyebrow to his cheek, cut through his flesh and left a dent on his cheekbone. He could feel the warm blood gushing out of his wound.
“M’lord!” he heard all of his bodyguard cried out at the same time. The agony in Midori’s voice pierced through his heart even worse than the assassin’s blade did to his eye.
“Before I die, I want to know who sent you here. Tokugawa? Or Takeda? I gave you the satisfaction of a duel. Should you at least let me know?”
“No one sent me here, lord Oda.” He voice was firm and cold, not playful like it was back in his commanding tent. “I am here just to kill you and your bodyguards.”
“Because it was fun, of course. It’s so fun,” she said, but there was no joy in her voice. He could feel the chill, the pain, and the shiver in her voice. And he felt like she didn’t even talk to him. It was more a soliloquy. “Fun… There’s so much fun… So fun…”
Then she took off with the rest of the assassins. James stood frozenly watching her fleeing into the night. Her footsteps were light. Her coat was flapping beautifully in the air. Her cape fell backwards, releasing her long dark hair flying. And that was his last image of her.
“Do we just let them run away like that?” Kankata tried to calm his voice. He was furious as all their comrades died under the assassins’ blade. They were all furious.
“Yes, just let them go. We were at their mercy the moment we got into that tent instead of running away when we regrouped. I saw firearm in their back pockets even though they tried to hide it. We will pursue this matter further once we get our ass back to Nagoya. For now, just let it slide, clean this place up and go to see what the Tokugawa had for us.”
They left the next morning for the meeting site near Owari – Mikawa border, leaving a burning camp behind. They spent half of the night gathering the bodies of their fallen comrades and saying some prayers. It was the first time James saw his subordinates showing that much emotion towards their comrades.
As the fire burned the bodies and the first sunlight shone on the bloodied battlefield, they put their emotions behind and returned to their mission. Their face was cold and emotionless, but their gazes were sharp and piercing. They could not show any weakness. They were lord Oda’s last line of defense.
They arrived at the site seeing Hidenaga already there with his bodyguards. He kept his side of the bargain, bringing only eight bodyguards by his side. At first Hidenaga request meeting alone, but James convinced him to bring the bodyguards to secure perimeter while they were talking. A small tent was already setup where they agreed to be the provincial border. Seeing James’ signal, both daimyos departed from their bodyguards and approached the tent alone for negotiation. James glanced back over his shoulder to see Midori once before entering the tent, but he realized he could not. He left his left eye at the burning camp with his fallen bodyguards this morning.
“Lord Oda, you look intimidating with one eye.”
“I appreciate your praise. It was a long story, and because of that, I suggest we change our negotiation protocol from traditional way.” James stopped to check on the other’s reaction. He did not want this negotiation to last longer than one day. Nobody knew if those assassins would come back.
“Please continue. I’m listening.”
“I come here with the intention of forming a strong and equal Oda – Tokugawa alliance. That can make do through ambassadors, but I wanted to have a formal pact directly between us daimyos. It was the reason I wanted to have this negotiation.”
“I believe I came here with the same intention.”
“Very good. Then we will determine the ground rule for our relationship between our clans, and then future military. I just want to strike a deal on the basics with you today, and we can leave all the details for our subordinates later. I do not want this negotiation to last too long.”
“I have no objection to that, lord Oda. The faster we finish our deal, the earlier we can get back to our comfortable castles in our provinces, yes?”
“That’s so, lord Tokugawa. As you are the initiator, shall we hear your term first? We can go point by point on the terms you propose.”
“Alright, lord Oda. Here are my terms. I’d like to establish our full alliance on all fronts including but not limited to economics, military, espionage and inter-clans affair. We will have full co-operation on these matters. First, on Economics, we will have our own income and treasury, but we will share resources that we have. I have sent you three thousand horses as your pact with the last daimyo as good will. I hope we can keep doing this in the future. This will ensure we shall not have conflict on future expansion plans. What do you think about this term?”
“It looks good to me. I will ensure we share our strategic resources with your clan. Next point?”
“Next term is on military. We shall maintain our standing army, but we shall be able to march through each other’s territory for our expansion campaign. Also, our armies shall fully co-operate whenever we share the battlefield.”
“I agree on that point,” James replied as soon as the other daimyo stopped and looked for his respond. “I want to add one more point. Whenever our armies march, we will have our own provisions. If your armies ever need help with food and supplies, the places to contact are town councils and castles. The peasants and villages will be left out in this issue. Their properties and farm lands will be left alone.”
“It make sense. I agree. Next point?” once James nodded in agreement, Hidenaga continued. “On espionage, we will fully share our espionage information and will not conduct any hostile action towards each other. We still have our own secret network, but we will keep each other updated on scouting and spying news, and in necessary situation provide support or conduct joint operations.”
“That is best for us. I have halted our operations on Tokugawa clan before I arrive here. I hope you’d do the same and return to us any properties you gathered in our last encounter, lord Tokugawa.”
“It was just an accident, lord Oda. We were just conducting some scouting missions in your territory. Your counter intelligence were strong.”
“Good. And on inter-clans affair?”
“It is not necessary that any of us will join an aggressive war against any other clan. However, if one of us is attacked by any clan, the other will join in with the defense. In other words, our clan will join a mutual defensive pact.”
“Yes, I agree that is best for our inter-clan strategy. I have nothing to add to your conditions. Those are the terms I have in mind too.”
“Then shall we sign our basic alliance pact? It contains all the terms we’ve discussed. Our subordinates will discuss and formulate the detailed plans.” James received the parchment containing their agreement and read it through. He signed, stood up and shook hand with Hidenaga, who had already offered his hand when he handed James the agreement.
“May our alliance stand strong against any opposition. For a united Japan!” James smiled at his new ally.
“May our alliance strand strong against any opposition, even Realm Divide.” Hidenaga replied and gently squeezed James’ hand on the last phrase.
“Shall we move on to our strategy on Imagawa, and in the future, Takeda and Hojo?”
“You are eager, lord Oda. But first, I have something to say first. I’m 24, a tank engineer. How about you?”
“I’m 19. College student. Chemistry and politics major. I kinda figure that out when you mentioned Realm Divide. You have your Bluetooth earphone?”
“No I don’t. Our Bluetooth earbuds disappeared altogether when last round ended.” Hidenaga wrote on a small piece of parchment.
“This will make our coordination on the battlefield harder. But that’s another issue for later. So what’s your situation on Imagawa?”
“I have around ten thousand men division already near Suruga and another six thousand men division just left Yoshida castle several days ago. We will be able to subdue the remnants of the Imagawa within the next six months.”
“Good. That means now we can think about Takeda, Hojo, and maybe Ikko Ikki. Do you have any plans yet?”
“No not yet. What do you have in mind?”
“Unless you want to band together with the Hojo and Takeda, we will have to eliminate them, and we have to do that soon, approximately in the next five years. They hold several strategic resources including stone, iron, and gold.”
“I think we will need to figure out who the daimyos are first before deciding if we want to go to war with them. But if we have to fight, how do you think we should fight?”
“Right now I have around fifteen thousand men stationing in Nagoya. By the end of this winter, we will have total twenty thousand strong. I intend to send my general, Takayama Muneyori and the division down to Suruga with you. We can use that army to either push through Sagami and Izu, or strike upwards to Kai. In one year, I can raise another thirty five thousand and form another division in Mino. It will depends on the scenario that I will use this division to attack South Shinano to form a pincer strike with your army in Kai, or use it to attack Omi and open options to attack northern provinces, or just to defend our back line. The last task will be the most important. With our legions marching against Takeda and Hojo up north, it will be utmost important to defend our backline, as in Mikawa and Owari. I’m specialized in defense, so it’ll be best if I hold the defense line.”
“I see. So you’re a military buff, I take it.”
“You can say that. But there’s an issue when we conduct joint campaign like that.”
“Co-operation between armies, right? How to make sure our armies fought cohesively and co-operatively is your concern, am I right?”
“Yes, that’s true. Do you have the iPad still?” James had been worrying about this issue since he knew Hidenaga didn’t have the earphone. If he didn’t have the iPad, they would have to rely on flags and drums to coordinate and maneuver in the battlefield.
“Unfortunately, yours is the last one in Mikawa – Owari region. There will be no way to communicate to each other beside through war flags and drums signals and messengers.”
“True. Old school methods are tough, so well, we will need some practice between our legions before actually engage in a real operation.”
“After our negotiation, I will get my subordinates put up a list of our intended signals. What do you think about adding flag semaphore to our communication?” James was surprised by Hidenaga’s suggestion about the flag semaphore. The modern communication methods using flags in Navy and Air Force could come in handy in real combat in this world too. It would allow not only communication between Hidenaga and James’ armies, but also within the army itself, enhancing maneuver of rear battalions according with the commanding center’s orders.
“That will work. I will have mine put up a list too. If you want to embed semaphore, we will have to apply them to our legions now. I will send Takayama’s division to your camp in Suruga once I finish recruiting at Nagoya. The sooner they arrive, the more time we have to practice coordination before our first joint operation.”
“Sounds good to me. Do you have any terms other than those we discussed?”
“I’m good with the plan. If you don’t have any other points, we can call it day and declare a success negotiation.” James put out his hand and Hidenaga shook it firmly.
“If you’re not in a hurry, you can join us in the feast we have tonight at our camp,” Hidenaga offered as they left the tent. “It’s getting dark. You can go back to your camp, bring all your men and join us too. We can have a big feast tonight to celebrate our alliance before going back to our castles tomorrow.”
“I appreciate your hospitality, Hidenaga. I don’t think it’s a good idea though. Those seven you see standing over there are my last seven of my sixty-men-bodyguard platoon. Fifty-three of them were killed in our camp last night. That was where I lost my left eye too. I will go back to Nagoya as soon as our negotiation end and have a formal requiem for my fallen men. I suggest you pull back somewhere you have more men mate. Those assassins may still be around and only god knows their motive. I thought they were sent by other clans, but they claimed to be independent. They are very good at stealth though.”
“Did they leave anything behind after the attack? Something like white petals? Some may call it ghost flower, I think.”
“How do you know? They did leave ghost flower petals on the scene.”
“This world is strange, but something like that is one of a kind. We, the players from previous rounds, call her snow flower’s illusion. Nobody has ever seen her face or knew her name. We only know her through the petals she left at the killing scene. I’m sorry you encountered her, Nobuhide. If she’s somewhere close, I should get back to Yoshida soon too. And you’d better go fast. The night is her friend.”
“You know her?”
“Yes I do. All of us who have been here at least one round know the girl. Or at least her legend. She’s the one who’s been staying here the longest, probably from the very first generation. She’s our nightmare mate. For so many rounds, she roam this land and kill any daimyo she encounter. Or at least she always try. Most of us have at least once got killed by that girl. I’ve never seen her in action though. I guess I’m luckier than most.”
“Do you know why she went rogue like that? And if she’s from the first generation, should she be out of the game by now?”
“Apparently she was killed so many times that she became a part of the game and could not get out once a generation end. Once you reach a threshold of death timer, you’ll stuck in this game for good, or at least until you win your own campaign, I think. Ok, so about her story. I’m not sure how accurate the story is, but this is what I learned from other rumors. In the first generation, there was a couple who were very good at this game. She was the daimyo of the Hattori clan, and he was the daimyo of the Oda clan. They banded up and conquered almost all of Japan. But then, he betrayed her and razed all her territories. In her final stand at Ueno Castle in Iga, the guy murdered all his girlfriend’s men and retainers before killing the girl. Before she died, she asked him why he wanted to betray and kill her. Can you guess what that asshole told her? He told her it was fun! It was fun mate. Can you believe it? He did that because it was fun, and created our worst nightmare.” Hidenaga was so calm as he was telling the story. His voice was cold and monotone, yet somehow James could feel the anger burning inside him. “I guess he was probably just too into the game. Anyway, when she woke up, he already won the round and left, but she didn’t know. She went on a rampage after that in order to find her ex-boyfriend and have her revenge. She tried to kill every daimyo she met on her path, but at first, it didn’t go so well for her. She died so many times trying to assassinate the daimyos that she stuck here when her generation got out of the game. Poor girl!”
“Why the ghost flower petals?”
“I heard he proposed to her somewhere up in the Shinano ranges where ghost flowers was the only plant that lived there. I think she got the petals there.”
“Your story made me wonder if I should feel sorry for her, Hidenaga. It was so sad.”
“Don’t. Just don’t. You’re lucky to stay alive after seeing her mate. Most didn’t. Just kill her on sight. My best friend once tried to shed some light on her, and the result was he got his head cut off and hung over the north gate of Okazaki castle. Don’t put yourself in the same situation.”
“Where is your best friend now?”
“I don’t know. I lost him since then.” Hidenaga stopped talking. So was James.
“Thank you for the alliance. And the story too.” James spoke after a long silence. “I should go back by now.”
“Yes you should. I will look for your division at Suruga. If there’s anything you need in Mikawa, send a bird to Takechiyo Shinji. He will take care of it for you.” Hidenaga seemed to snap out of his story-telling-mode when he helped James on his horse.
“Best of luck to your conquest against Imagawa. I will wait for your good news.” James smiled and saluted Hidenaga before riding back to his bodyguards.
Looking towards where his bodyguards were standing, the glowing red sun was setting, dying the whole grassland red. Somehow the scene reminded James of the girl’s story. It was so sad. All those killings, betrayals, assassinations, and deaths. He couldn’t imagine how he could endure such things if he was in her stead. It would probably drive him mad. Was she mad? Was her sanity gone after all the things she’d been through? She died so many times that she became the game. How many times did she die? All those physical pain added up with all those mental distress. Was she even human at all at this point? Or she suffered so much that she became a ghost? A lost soul wandering this land at night.
He looked at the faded moon in a corner of the sky and felt sorry for her.
It was just so much pain…
Author: Dat Le