Part 24: A Quiet Blizzard

Owari, Late Winter 1545.

Looking at the ferocious blizzard raging on the castle wall, James held tightly on his fox-fur coat as he reminisced the first winter away from home. Even though that was the first time he lived in the place he had always wanted, it was so bland that he couldn’t remember much, except for the Christmas night he spent at the town’s church. He couldn’t recall the church’s image either, but there was no hint of sadness in his heart. He didn’t care much, since it was bland and uneventful. He didn’t want to admit, but deep down inside he knew he hated the place. Not just the college, but his high school, his home, everywhere he’d been to. All that was meaningful to him were his parents, and a couple of friends, not even a handful. He always tried to integrate, and he always seemed to be successful in that matter to other people. To him, he knew he always failed. He had never been able to integrate anywhere. He had always been on his own.

Just like that winter. And the winter after that. And the winter after that…

Just like the fact that he had never seen snow on Christmas, except for this one. And it wasn’t even real.

He couldn’t tell the exact date on the Julian calendar in the game, but according to the court report, new year is coming soon, which meant Christmas was coming in a few days. Now that he thought of it, Christmas and New Year brought nothing to him but a strong reminder of his solitude. He had never been alive. He had never found a place where he belonged.

“I shouldn’t let the emotions coming out like this,” he smirked at himself as he realized what was on his mind. “It’s better to let it die cold than alive to disturb my tranquility.”

The chilling wind and snow numbed his face, but somehow he enjoyed this feeling. It was like realizing his emotion numbness.

“Would you like to come inside, m’lord? You don’t look so well,” Midori tried to talk to him, against the howling wind’s attempts to drown her voice.

“How long have we been standing out here?” He pulled Midori closer to him so he wouldn’t have to scream in this weather.

“Almost two hours, m’lord.” Her face was just as pale and her voice was trembling, but there was no such weakness in her eyes. He looked in her dark eyes, and all he could see was resolve and dedication. She was just a girl, but she was stronger than most men James knew. Through all the campaigns in which she accompanied him, he couldn’t remember for once she complained about anything.

“Let’s go inside then. I have enough blizzard for the whole day.” They walked back to James’ study in silence, and spent the whole afternoon sinking in their own thoughts. Midori didn’t even once try to start a conversation. They had spent enough time together for her to know when she should not disturb his thoughts.

As his bodyguard was doing her own things in the corner of the room, James fixed his eyes to the war table in front of him. Once he got rid of all his burdening emotions, his attention raced right back to the news Rene broke him several days ago, which gave him something to think about after a few uneventful weeks. Just in the past six months, the Hojo clan already stabilized their domestic issues and finished their expansion into Edo region of Musashi, Shimosa, and Kazusa. With this information, it was safe to assume the Hojo maintained at least a neutral relationship with another powerful neighboring clan: the Takeda with the famous Takeda Shingen. In the worst-case scenario, these two might even be allies. In such situation, assuming the Takeda already secured North Shinano and maybe Hida and Etchu, their alliance already controlled North East regions. From this position, they had many options for expansion. They could march north together to destroy the Uesugi and Date before returning southward, which would require them to maintain at least a non-aggression relationship with the Ikko Ikki monks and the Oda – Tokugawa alliance. This option could work, with only one loose end: the Ikko Ikki monks, who followed Ikko Buddhism, different from the majority of Japanese who followed Shinto Buddhism. Because the difference in religion, the monks generally wouldn’t co-operate with non Ikko religion clans, which would often lead to numerous conflicts with neighboring provinces. Without securing a stable and trusted relationship with both the Ikko and James’ alliance, Takeda – Hojo’s plan to march North was very challenging. The alternative plan for them was to destroy both the Ikko and Oda – Tokugawa alliance while leaving the Uesugi – Date untouched. This was a more feasible plan, since with the Uesugi’s establishment in Fukushima and Echizen, they blocked the Date’s road Southward. Since both Date and Uesugi were major clans, unless they formed an alliance, they would take a long time to stabilize the North, which would buy enough time for the clash between Takeda – Hojo and Oda – Tokugawa alliances. With the uncooperative manner of the Hojo current daimyo, it was unwise for James to let them have time stabilizing their provinces and developing their power. Once they had a foothold in the North, fighting against the Takeda cavalry and Hojo superior fortresses were much tougher. James would very much want to push North straight away and alleviate this concern, but he dared not to leave his rear open to Ikko and other clans. Of course, he could use his main force to defend Owari and provide a safe backline while leaving the frontal campaign for Rene and Hidenaga, but James was unrest about that idea. With only two legions of approximately fifty thousand, unless Rene and Hidenaga were exceptionally good at military strategy, they had very slim chance of defeating the combined force of Takeda and Hojo.

“M’lord,” to James’ surprise, Ataki jumped through the window into the room, bringing the wind into the study and messed up all the paper work on the table.

After Ataki’s trip to Okazaki to postpone James’ espionage campaign there led by Miki, Ataki returned to Nagoya instead of following Rene, who now called Takechiyo, to Totomi province. After a brief discussion, three of them decided that it was most beneficial for Ataki to stay with James and support the Oda for now. Since then, every once in a while, Ataki reported to James about local situations, and every time he did that, he always arrived through the window, which bothered Midori a lot. Even though she didn’t say anything, she always gave him a sharp glare on his entrance, which scared both men in the room.

“How’s the report on the Takeda? And you don’t have to “m’lord” me when there’re just us. Midori understands,” right after receiving the news about the Hojo’s expansion from Rene a few days ago, James quickly decided that he need more information, thus contacted Ataki to do a quick scout on Takeda’s movement.

“Alright, James it is. As you expected, the Takeda and Hojo formed a formal alliance right off the bat in the summer. Takeda Shingen conquered North Shinano at the same time, then Hida in fall, and is sieging Etchu right now. Etchu should fall soon, probably before New Year. Currently they have one standing army, with the second in training. In total, they should have around twenty thousand strong, with most of them are cavalry.”

“Twenty huh? They do have a lot of horses. What did they siege castles with mainly cavalry? Do something to force the garrison outside?”

“I heard they formed raiding parties, ravaged and plundered the surrounding areas to force the garrisons out of the castles. Once the garrisons were out of the walls, the Takeda massacred them all. Takeda Shingen already gained infamy in the region as a blood thirsty daimyo.”

“I can imagine that happen. Can you gain any information regarding Kiso – Takeda relationship?” Kiso was the clan governing South Shinano, which was neighboring Oda’s domain. To fight Oda, the Takeda must pass by South Shinano to reach Owari.

“Nothing much from this quick scout. I just know they currently have a trading pact. Nothing special occurred at the border.”

“Alright. How fast do you think you can travel to Fukushima?”

“Around six hundred to seven hundred miles from here to Fukushima, depending on the road I pick. If I go full speed, it will take around four to five days. If I travel discreetly to avoid enemy spies and such, it may take up to three weeks. If you want me to gather information and give you weekly reports, it may take up to two months.”

“What if you take someone else with you?”

“It depends on whom. If that person is skillful, we can actually travel faster, around one month top if you want weekly reports. If not, I dare not say. Probably take three to four months.”

“Three months are alright. We are not in an urgent situation right now.”

“Who do you want me to take with you?”

“I want you to take Kake and Inagi with you. You’ll leave Inagi with Takechiyo, but Kake will go all the way with you to Fukushima.” James’ words surprised both Ataki and Midori.

“Are you sure? I understand about Inagi part. But Kake? There’s no point in taking her with me. The nature of my work just put her life at risk.”

“Actually, she’s safer with you. You don’t have a target on your back. I do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember why I lost my left eye? There’s no guarantee she will not come back. She couldn’t kill me the last time.”

“Oh yes, now I do notice. You’re the Oda’s daimyo after all. But should she face the same danger if she travels with me?”

“Normally she will, but not on this trip. Here’s my plan for you. You will take the southern road, head off for Mikawa, Totomi, and Suruga. When you reach Suruga, take a detour through Kai, then to Musashi. From Edo region, you can follow the main road through Shimosa, Shimotsuke, then to Fukushima. Your main mission this time is gathering civil information about the provinces you go through. Remember, civil information. If possible, military stationing too. I don’t need to know their plans, so no infiltration needed.”

“Civil information?”

“Yes, civil information. Takeda and Hojo are expanding a little bit too fast. I doubt they don’t have any issue within the population. And I can pretty much guess their plans based on the divisions’ positions, so you do not need to take unnecessary risks like infiltration the enemy camps.”

“I understand. Are you doubting my ability? You are sending me to do amateur scout work.” Ataki was calm as usual, but James could sense the unrest in his voice. In Ataki’s perspective, it was reasonable for him to be angry. Since he joined James’ service, he hadn’t been in any kind of missions in the same rank he used to when he served Rene. To a shinobi with high skill caliber like Ataki, that might be a big insult to his pride.

“I do not underestimate your skills. Right now, the situation doesn’t require taking such risks. Field scouting can provide sufficient information for my strategic planning. For this trip to Fukushima this time, you have a bigger role than just providing communication and scouting though. My guess is that the Takeda will march against the Ikko of Kaga, and the Hojo against Uesugi of Fukushima. If those two get too strong, fighting against them will be very hard. So we will help the Uesugi against the Hojo. Once those two clans clash, you will have more dangerous missions than you want, Ataki. Taking the head of Hojo Ujiyasu for example. Besides, Takeda’s division in Kai looks too fishy. That is also another important thing you need to confirm.”

“I see. I’m sorry for doubting your intention. But what of Kake?”

“I want you to trainer, shinobi art for self-defense. It may come in handy the next time we’re in danger, and she may be helpful for you in future work.”

“And I thought only the Hattori fancy the dark arts.”

“I try to make my fights the easier the better. It’s no use wasting men in challenging skirmishes, and it’s also no use in killing more men. Besides, the casualty is a lot less in such cases.”

“I see your logic there. Is there anything else you want to ask me before I’m on my way?”

“When you come to Mikawa, find Miki and tell her to talk to Takechiyo. He’s coming back to Totomi now and may be able to help her find her missing friend. It’s been a long time but they have no sign of that person.”

“Understood. Then I’ll be on my way.” Ataki drank up the last of his tea and stood up, preparing to dash out of the window again.

“Hey, take care and be safe.” James smiled. “I know you want to work out, but you have to be patient. Your time will come. I will not hold you back then.”

“Thanks. And neither will I, when your time comes. I can feel the fervor in your blood.”

“Good. Now, off you go. I’ll wait for your reports.” Ataki put on his mask, nodded, then vanished into the roaring blizzard. James smiled to himself as he closed the window. “You can feel the fervor eh. Interesting.”

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

Author: Dat Le

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