Suruga, Winter 1545
Ten thousands was a great number. Twenty thousands was a greater number. Yet, in the question of war, numbers did not decide everything. Twenty thousands men, fully armed and well trained, under the Imagawa blue and yellow banner, mounted an offensive against the Totomi provincial castle and suffered a humiliating defeat against the Tokugawa army. The local witnesses retold the story that the men fearlessly scaled the castle walls while being shot down by waves of arrows then submitted to the blades of the defenders atop the walls. The relentless stream of attackers climbing the wall only stopped when there was no one left to climb, at which point bystanders saw smoke rose from the bottom of the wall. It was the last attempt to hurt the Tokugawa’s army, and while it did kill a good number of the defenders, it could not save the offensive. When the drums sounded the retreat, the defeated left behind a sea of corpses, probably numbered more than ten thousands bodies. Rene could confirm this fact for himself, having arrived at the scene just two days after the battle, seeing the cleaning up was still in progress.
The glorious tale recounting the siege of Hikuma castle praised Matsudaira Nobutaka and his conquering army over the “rebellious” Imagawa clan. Yet, what struck Rene was that the “storytellers” were not actual storytellers, local villagers or wanderers trying to settle down. The tale lived on thanks to the ronins, the spies, the scouts… those who paid a special interest to the rising Tokugawa general. They passed on the tale, keeping its fire alive, while the local folks just lived their simple and indifferent lives.
This fact was not the only thing that Rene had learned during his march to Nobutaka’s whereabouts. Apparently, Nobutaka had seized the momentum and pursued the defeated, all the way to the Suruga and Sagami provincial border. How far Rene would have to travel until he reached the A.I. general, he did not know. But he did know that marching a disordered and undisciplined five-thousand-man army to chase after a general was difficult as hell. He also knew that Japanese was as hard to learn as marching this army. Since his last call with James, Rene had put away the earphone and tried to talk in Japanese on his own. He found it challenging but relaxing at the same time. As he focused on uttering the right sounds, he no longer had his mind running haywire on everything else.
Because of this small self-study challenge, it took him almost two weeks reaching Nobutaka’s camp.
“General Nobutaka, I have come with a message from lord Tokugawa Hidenaga.” Rene had put on his earphone before the meeting to perform this façade as best as he could. He bowed as low as possible, his nose almost touching the ground, and put forth a scroll, which Nobutaka picked up without saying anything. He remained kneeling, his vision glued at Nobutaka’s katana, while the general read the scroll. Silence filled the general’s personal tent for a few minutes. The Nobutaka in front of Rene remained the same person he had met as Hirotada months ago.
“Insolent fool, how dare you address our lord as equal?” Nobutaka shoved Rene and took a swing at his face. Rene fell face first to the ground but quickly regained his posture, only to be kicked in the shin by the general.
“Always, always address his grace as our lord. Do not refer to him as equal. Know your place, you peasant. I do not know what bribery you gave him but you will never earn my trust.” Nobutaka walked away from Rene and stopped by his table, putting away the message.
“My apology, general. I would never commit such a disgrace again.” Rene returned to the kneeling position, feeling the ache from his lower half of the body.
“And you dare stay there? Get out there and assemble the captains for me.” Nobutaka spoke in a low and disgruntled voice, not even looking at him, as Rene replied and quickly left the tent.
Rene spent the next hour standing silent inside the general’s tent, listening to his ordering the captains. It would seem that, including the reinforcement, the Tokugawa army now numbered something close to nine thousands men strong. In the next two days, they would face the Imagawa remnants which still had a roughly equal force of eight thousands men and a staunch defensive position. They had retreated to an old temple complex which had long served as a library for the local. Since they lost Sunpu castle, Suruga provincial center, they had reinforced the complex and used it as the base of operation.
Rene couldn’t even see the map or the plan of attack, let alone participate in the meeting. He could clearly sense the neglecting and indifferent attitude directed toward him. He wanted to leave, not just the room but back to Mikawa as soon as possible, but somehow he thought he would need a word of approval from Nobutaka first. After the meeting ended, all the captains left, leaving only Rene and the general inside.
“General, may I leave?”
“So that tender body of yours finally reaches its limit? Find my attendant, he’ll show you to your tent.”
“General, I do not understand.” Rene spoke with a monotone but his mind began racing.
“My attendant, two tents south from here. Speak with him. Or do you not understand this simplest order?”
“No, I thought…”
“You thought?” Nobutaka walked forward, closing in the distance, his huge body overwhelmed Rene.
“You have your order, boy. Return here tomorrow. You will now accept my order as my runner. If you do well, you will become a captain soon enough.”
“I think you may have…”
“I may have what?” The general pushed forward, his face leaning closer toward Rene’s.
“Misunderstood.” Rene remained his monotone voice and poker face while swallowing his fear.
“I was only instructed to bring the reinforcement here then to head back to Mikawa as soon as possible.”
“And you dare defy our lord’s order, which is written on the scroll so explicitly?” The general spoke as if yelling into Rene’s face, then walked toward the table and picked up the scroll. Sadly for Rene, he could not read all of the Japanese characters.
“My apology, general. I will do as instructed.” Rene stood still.
“One hundred push ups then serve teas for all of your former captains. Report to me when you’re done. My attendant will see to it.” Nobutaka turned his back to Rene.
“Well, aren’t you going?”
He swallowed his dried throat then exited the tent.
During the next two days, Rene played the fool for the entire army, running around doing errands, while the main army regrouped and the reinforcement rested. Despite his discontent toward this hostility, Rene could not help but admire Nobutaka’s talent. With roughly equal number in strengths, added the fact that the enemy was well prepared in a defensive position, he somehow managed to put the enemy in a pincer and crushed them. On the third day, when both the main army and the reinforcement merged, Nobutaka leaded them against the temple complex and wiped out anything Imagawa related. It was an anti-climatic, quick and decisive battle which consisted of half an hour moving the army and three hours slaughtering the routed. The day ended quickly with two thousands captives surrendered themselves, and soon enough Rene found himself in the general’s tent when nightfall came.
“You requested me, general?”
He sat behind his table, reading the note Rene delivered the other day. Since Rene had come instead of Hidenaga as a replacement, Hidenaga wrote that note as an official order for Nobutaka.
“As instructed by our lord, I am to go back to Totomi and met our lord there. You will stay in this province and station at the border, watch and secure the area until further order. You will command five hundreds men and hold the provincial border camp Shori. You will begin marching tomorrow. That will be all.”
“Permission to speak, general.”
Nobutaka looked at him.
“What is it?”
“What should I be wary of regarding the border?”
“The Hojo clan. Now get out of my sight.”
Nobutaka returned his attention to the note and gave Rene a cold shoulder, signaling him to leave.
The order came as unexpected as Nobutaka’s hostility, but Rene carried it out. He marched his company to the camp Shori, which situated at the border sitting next to Izu and Sagami domain belonging to the Hojo clan. He did simple tasks, organizing regular patrols, assisting travelers and catching spies. He did not question the order. He did not think twice about what he was doing here. It was simply an order.
In the first snow day of the winter, Rene met some new friends.
There was a small town sitting right next to the border which was a trading hub for travelers and surrounding farming villages. Its usual residents were all sorts of oddities and trinkets traders. But to the men at Shori, Rene quickly learned that it was their weekend go-to vacation location, having some wine and other mundane necessities there. He would often join his men going into town, having a drink in a quiet pub sitting in the corner of town, drowning himself away from any concerns with serenity, emptiness, and good strong alcohol. He avoided talking to strangers as soon as he befriended the pub’s owner whose contact with him went as far as serving drinks and greeting.
One lovely morning, a trio of two men and a woman entered the pub, sat at the table next to Rene’s, and ordered some bottles of sake. Rene would not even notice their existence in the pub, if not for the woman’s doing.
“Hey little boy, want to join us in our drink?” She turned around to greet Rene in English and then laughed.
“You know he wouldn’t notice us, right?” One of the men responded while continued drinking. They acted as if Rene wouldn’t hear them or react to them, as the owner did. And Rene did precisely so. He remained still, fixing his eyes on his cup and pretending that nothing had happened. As soon as he established himself as one of the A.I. in the bar, the trio returned to talking to each other in the language Rene could understand without using the earphone.
A mixture of anxiety and excitement surged in Rene. He thought about the order about border control he had and these newfound human players. He could have let them go after they finished their business here, away from the pub and away from his quiet and uneventful life at the border. He then thought about where these players might have come from, where they were going next, and what amateur mistakes they just made, talking in English and revealing their identities. Had he been Ataki, Rene would have captured for interrogation then brought these people to his lord…
His train of thought ended there after a few minutes. Rene then finished his drink, left the pub then returned moments later with a bottle of sake in his hand. He approached the trio’s table and spoke to them in English.
“Sorry for earlier, I would have accepted the offer if not for my social anxiety. But well, I figured the best bottle of alcohol in town would make for the best apology, right?” He raised the bottle with his left hand, his right hand dangling by the side where his katana was.
The woman moved first, reaching for her katana and immediately took a swing at Rene. He took a step back, completely dodged it, and began talking, while the other two men remained shocked and confused.
“Hold on, hold on, I’m friendly. Let’s not kill every human players on sight, alright?” He gestured his hands wildly and spoke as fast as he could.
“Who the hell are you?” The men gradually came to their senses and one of them spoke first.
“Currently Takechiyo, captain of the Tokugawa provincial border guard. Also known as Rene, a new human player of the round.”
“How do you end up here if you’re the new human player?”
“I died, obviously. But that’s enough of me. I mean no harm, so can the lady sheath her weapon and we all have a drink on me?”
The two men looked at the woman, then they all nodded and the woman sheathed her blade.
“Kaiyo, another bottle, please.” Rene cheerfully turned to the owner, who acted as if nothing had happened, and ordered the next round. He then sat at the table and invited the three guests a sip of his bottle.
“What do you want?” The woman spoke first, after rejecting the invitation.
“For now, knowing your names and where you’re going.” Rene sipped from his bottle while the owner served the trio.
“And what would you do with that information?”
“For starter, addressing you in our friendly conversation, and depending on the latter, either doing nothing, or helping you.”
The three stared at each other then at Rene.
“She’s Rosario, he’s Mark, I’m Henry. We’re not spies.”
“I do not dare to make such an assumption.”
“Then call off the guards outside.” Henry continued and surprised everyone. Rene pondered for a split second.
“Very well then, I will have it your way as my good will and recognition of your talent.” He smiled, walked outside then returned to the table, giving the three a mere minute alone.
“Well, with that out of the way, where are you all going?”
“Not yet, kiddo.”
“Hold it, Rose.” The man named Mark cut in, then looked at Henry.
“Forgive us for this precaution. This isn’t exactly a friendly place for a friendly conversation. Let’s do information exchange, one question for us in exchange of two questions for you. Do we have a deal?” Henry spoke up.
“Seems like an unfair deal, isn’t it? How about just one for one, and I’ll promise the best blade my company possesses?” Rene continued his cheerful tone, to which Henry replied seriously.
“One for one, and supplies for three days for the three of us, food, water, and a few good swords.”
“Fine on my end. If you’re on a journey somewhere I know, I can even offer a security detail.”
“That would be unnecessary. We ask first.” Henry spoke while glanced at his two companions.
“Is the Imagawa destroyed?”
“As a matter of fact, it is.”
“When and how?”
“I believe it is my turn to ask.” Rene spoke softly.
“Where are you all going?”
“Southwest.” Rosario grunted. Then Henry spoke.
“What is your objective in this world?”
The question took Rene off guard. He stayed silent for a moment then spoke.
“As of right now, serving my friend and my lord. What will you do when you get to your destination?”
“Do what we were instructed to. Who are your friend and lord?”
“The current Tokugawa daimyo. What were you instructed to do?”
Henry turned to look at Rosario, who looked at Mark. They all looked hesitated.
“Find a man named Hidenaga. Who is the current Tokugawa daimyo?”
“As a matter of fact, he is.” Rene took a sip and enjoyed the shock expression on the trio’s faces. “What business do you have with him?”
Rosario slowly reached for her katana and gripped it tightly. Both Mark and Henry looked tensed.
“To deliver a note and have a discussion. Do you hate him?”
“No, I do not. Are you human players from previous rounds that have formed some sort of council with Hidenaga?”
At this point, Henry exhaled and reached for his cup of sake, while the other two remained anxious.
“It seems you do not hate him after all. How about this, tell us your story, and we have a normal conversation instead of these exchanges?”
“I would like that, but what about your companions? They don’t seem to like the idea.”
Henry nodded at them then laughed.
“Don’t worry about it. I promise a conversation.”
“Very well then. I was killed in a battle against the Imagawa. Hidenaga rescued me from the civilian life and reinstated me as one of his court members. He entrusted me to reinforce the effort to wipe out the Imagawa clan, but upon arriving here, I… received an order to stay here until further notice.” Rene hesitated midway, but the moment slipped the trio.
“So the Tokugawa now holds the region? Has he stabilized it?”
“Sadly, I wouldn’t be able to answer this question. But given the situation, I can provide a security detail and supply for you to get to Totomi, where he supposedly is right now. I’ll personally join, plus a few of my best from the company. Once we’re there, you can ask him anything you want.”
“We have an agreement then.” Henry laughed. The other two sat still but their grips on the katana loosened.
“Where were you from? And what’s happening there? I mean beyond the Suruga’s border.”
“Fukushima. The Uesugi clan leaded by the original human player took the province from the Mogami clan and established the province as the base for all known human players from the previous rounds. We, including people like Hidenaga, are parts of this council of human players, and right now we’re messengers, delivering the news between people like him with the higher ups in Fukushima.”
“People like Hidenaga?”
“We call them first responder. People like Hidenaga would approach original human players in the new round and introduce them to human players from previous rounds, then work so that we will all work together. Mark?”
“Yeah, well, I was in charge of the Hojo domain, and Jim, that is Hidenaga, is in charge of the Tokugawa and Oda domain. Apparently, he’s doing his job.”
“You might very well say so. What happened in Hojo?”
Everyone looked at Mark, Rene with curiosity and the other two with solemnity.
“Well, he killed me, saying he didn’t need helps from any other human players, then conquered Musashi, Shimosa, and Kazusa to prove his point. These two picked me up and instead of trying again or going back to Fukushima, I rather joined them on their mission.”
Rene turned silent for a moment.
“Are you two the only group to deliver news to first responders?”
“Not just deliver. Basically, we get reports, see if they have succeeded or not and what to do next after that. And no, we’re not the only group. There are about five more groups. And at Omi, the three of us will split up anyway.”
“How many rounds have you played?” Rene asked and regretted immediately. His question drowned the mood and everyone looked grim and awkward.
“This is my fourth round. But you don’t ask these kinds of question to other human players, ok? It’s a rather sensitive topic among us.” Henry spoke afterward, finished all of his alcohol. Mark looked at Rosario nervously, his hands fiddling with his cup. Rene decided to salvage the situation.
“Although it’s still early in the day, how about make a trip back to my camp? We’ll pack up the supply, prepare a five men detail and we go back to Hikuma castle, ok?”
“Yes, free lodging.” Rosario spoke freely and made everyone laugh.
“Very well then, we thank you for your hospitality. But let us make haste and be on the way in two hours. The sooner we meet with Jim, I mean Hidenaga, the better. Is it alright for you to leave the post?”
“It’s fine. Let’s go shall we?” Rene stood up and walked to the door, hiding his face which was showing more anxiety than the entire pub had seen that day.
Author: Minh Vu