Totomi, Winter 1545
“I honestly have no idea what to say right now.”
Jim, also known as Matsudaira Hidenaga, uttered his disgruntled words through the crack of his teeth. He sat behind his table in the war room, with four other people, inside the newly restored Hikuma castle, sheltered away from the snow outside.
“Well, Rene, we will talk after this. I need updates from you three first. And don’t you dare walk out of this room.”
Somehow, Rene couldn’t help but grin. He lowered his head and let the other three took the stage.
“Fukushima is strong and stable now. We pushed back the Mogami clan further north into the Date domain. Karick in Date is doing well, too. The human player in Date has agreed to join our council and cooperate. He’s an honest one, declaring his intention to leave the game in the beginning, and he isn’t very familiar with the game. The northern region still has Miyagi in the Mogami’s hand. They took it from Hatakeyama. Once Date can take the province, Uesugi and Date will link up, and we will have a complete supporting backline. On the other hand, the Uesugi daimyo is planning to set sail to Honma clan and destroy them before going further south. Still no contact between Uesugi with other clans down south, so for the time being I think that the north is safe. Mark?”
“Takeda and Hojo daimyos are declared hostile by the council. They didn’t agree to cooperate, let alone forming an alliance or joining the council. As of now, they have formed their own alliance with each other and continued to expand in the region. The Takeda clan is holding the mountainous region of Kai, North Shinano, Hida. Takeda Shingen the human player himself leaded the advance westward, he’s sieging Etchu as of now. The Hojo clan has control of the Edo region, the newly conquered Musashi, Shimosa, and Kazusa. Words on the street say they’re moving north and northwest. It seems like Kozuke and Shimotsuke would be their next targets. They haven’t made any contact, both via back channeling or through official envoy, with Uesugi. I assume there’s also no contact with any clan down here?”
Hidenaga spaced out for a moment then nodded.
“Rosario, anything else to add?”
“Nothing. That’s the current situation as of now. We haven’t found a way to make or replicate an Ipad or an earphone.”
“So that didn’t work, too. I see. What is the council planning now?”
“Macro-wise, they want Uesugi to assist Date in taking the Miyagi province, but since Uesugi holds his own reins, they agree to his plan of taking the Sado island. The next step is to consolidate the power in the region, complete the link up, then welcome Date into the council. After that, either wait for a full report from the first responders, or deal with this Takeda-Hojo alliance. Micro-wise, they’re considering moving to Miyagi, away from the frontline, and creating an A.I. based intelligence network.”
“Where are you going next?”
“To Omi province. Once we’re there, I’ll continue south to Mori. Mark will pay a visit to the Hattori clan then cross the channel into Awaji province. Rosario will go west to the Ikko Ikki.”
“Any specific order from the council for me?”
“Very well then, here’s my report.”
Hidenaga wrapped up some scrolls of paper then headed over to the three and gave them the scrolls. He then returned to the table and began speaking.
“Briefly, as you might have known, Oda Nobuhide has secured Mino and made an alliance pact with me. He is a talented and keen one, so I’m holding back on talking to him about the council. There’s something about him that I’ve yet to understand. But he can be counted as one of us. He’s reasonable, and I recommending inviting him to the council. The Oda-Tokugawa alliance will now remain on the defensive, consolidate the army strength and consider a plan of attack against the Takeda-Hojo alliance. They haven’t made contact with us and so, we agree to maintain blackout. Oda himself is in Owari, I think. You should pay him a visit, but conceal your identity. On the other hand, I will hold Suruga. It borders three provinces, all belong to the other alliance, so it’ll be troublesome if the province is left unguarded. Lastly, this bloody bloke.”
Hidenaga directed his glare at Rene, who was sitting at the far left. The other three sitting besides him turned to stare at him with curiosity.
“As you may have known, he was Tokugawa Hirotada, a very gifted man. We’ve made clear of our positions, he agreed to cooperate, then went the heck off the grid for the last month.”
Rene heard giggles.
“We will sort that out after this meeting. But as far as you should know, he’s one of us.”
Rene felt the glare directed at him getting more intense.
“Why didn’t you tell Oda Nobuhide about the council as well?” Henry asked.
“Not yet. I’m still not sure about the extent of his attention or his capability. He can be too good for his own good. That said, he might cooperate with me, but not the council. Let me have some time to know the man more. Then, I will invite him.”
“Very well then. I will send a bird back to Fukushima. Anything else you need?”
“No, that should be all. When will you leave?”
“Tomorrow, as usual.”
“Then go to the kitchen and have it prepared you three something. Go to the storage and stock up, and stable if you need new horses. Here, grad this order.”
Hidenaga scribed off a piece of paper and threw it to Henry. The three nodded and silently left the room, not before giving Rene one last look, mixed of pity and curiosity. The room turned silent for a few minutes.
“Care to explain yourself?”
Rene decided to glue his vision to the ground.
“Need I remind you of what you need to do?”
“I was told to deliver the reinforcement then come back here for the next course of action.”
“And you didn’t, because?”
“…Nobutaka gave me an order based on your notes, saying that I am to be commanded by him until further order from you.”
“And you do so?”
“I did not understand the kanji in the notes and, as I was, a rank must follow order.”
“What have you been doing since then?”
“Did you find anything useful?”
“The trio, spies came into our province disguised as traders more than as wanderers, and unlike the people deeper in the province, people near borders actually think about the inter clan affairs.”
“Except for the first one, you can logically figure the second and ask me for the third. And even for the first one, except for my real name, you can ask me for all the other stuff. So, I ask again, did you find anything useful?”
“Yes, precisely nothing.”
Hidenaga sighed then walked to the window, turning his back to Rene.
“You know, I do not think that I have any more experience in life than you do, nor more expertise or credibility to judge you. But let me offer you an advice. Life is a gray area. You cannot just decide that you’re a soldier and that’s it. That is why I do not want to order you, but rather see you as equal. Do you understand this at least?”
“…Yes, I do.”
“If you have to pick an identity to act upon it, see yourself as the Tokugawa royal member. I hope we never have to speak of this again.”
Hidenaga returned to his seat at the table.
“I will try my best. Thank you.”
“Move on from that, let me brief you on the clan situation. Military-wise, we have seventeen thousands men strong. I’m not recruiting anymore but rather grinding them into better gears and skills, plus experimenting some new formations and tactics. I have recruited ten thousands and will be marching them to merge with Nobutaka’s seven thousands in Suruga. Once there, I will appropriate the assignment for troops. In addition, I have granted military access to the Oda. General Takayama have had twenty thousands men stationing at Totomi province and prepared to move to Suruga province with me. As of now, we will coordinate our defense at the border and plan for any potential offensive. I disbanded half of the attendants and let them go back to farming with the promise to call them to service when needed. The remaining numbers about five thousands, still a handful. That said, the economy is definitely doing better, thanks to the returned workforce. We have production, a growing treasury and people are content. However, Suruga province is still in a lot of mess. The administrative positions are void since we took Sunpu castle. Nobutaka is a soldier at core. He couldn’t fiddle with any paper. Resistance is acting up as expected, but not at an alarming rate. The provincial economy is also in a slum, but we’ve managed to stop all the bleeding thanks to clearing out the Imagawa remnants. All that is left is to consolidate power and wealth in the province. That would be all. What is it?”
“Are you talking in terms of Mercantilism or Capitalism? Neoclassical economics, Keynesian or the game economics?”
Hidenaga looked at Rene, dazzled.
“Well, this is why I think you’re not a soldier.” He burst out laughing at the end. “I don’t know. This is where you step in. Do you know what you’ll do now?”
Rene felt eerily familiar with the question and, more precisely, his state hearing the question. It was something close to a void resided within his mind.
No, at least pick it up from the beginning. I have the overview, and if needed, detail reports. Hidenaga can handle the military, so leave it at that. What I need right now is a detail report, see if we can pump up the economy more to prepare for the war ahead. Then consider the Takeda-Hojo alliance, would they be our next enemy? Or will we expand the other way, into Kiso or Kyoto’s grip? We need an envoy, make clear of their intention, then decide accordingly. James had already agreed to blackout, but I don’t think this is a safe choice. It feels as if he is ready for war against them already. I don’t like that.
“You know, you were whispering to yourself. Although I find it amusing, I also find it weirdly scary. By the way, if you’re to call me by my real name, I prefer Jim. James sounds a bit, too distanced.”
Hidenaga cut in his train of thoughts, or rather… Had he been thinking out loud?
Rene looked up, smiled awkwardly.
“Give me some time to think.”
“Stay here and think. I want your answer now.”
“That’s all I ask for.”
Whatever the case was, Rene felt the need to secure a strong economy. He had no information on the clan’s income and treasury. In this topic, he would want details, figures and estimations rather than adjectives. He would play this the usual way he did with James: let James handle the fighting, he’d take care of the economy. Ah, it should be finance, if I’m thinking in the old world’s terms.
“First, I want to have access to the clan’s financial report. Because of personal interest and preparation for the next war, I want to boost up the clan’s income. I will need each province’s report, including assets, populations, numbers of towns and villages, trade routes and trade partners, anything that you can give me. I can stay here or Mikawa, but I need a study room and some good men…”
Ataki and Inagi briefly touched the back of his mind.
“I will talk to Oda daimyo and have him return our clan members, I need…”
“He sent a message about it already. As of now, Inagi will return to your service. On the other hand, Ataki and Kake will go on their own way. The three will arrive here within the next few days. We agree that Ataki is a valuable asset and should be considered shared asset. I give Nobuhide Ataki’s control right now. It’s up to him to decide.”
James told me this, too.
“Very well. I will fill out the empty spots on my own. The next thing is the philosophical court. If you were right about the game mechanics, I want to test it out a bit, see if it helps. Lastly, I will uphold your agreement to maintain diplomatic blackout with the Takeda-Hojo alliance. But I will try my best to convince you two of peace and cooperation, and I will ask for your approval before initiate back channel diplomacy.”
“You don’t have to ask for…”
“Not permission, approval. I understand just that. I will not touch upon the military affairs and your affair with the Oda clan. But if necessary, I will consult and act upon our mutual agreement. That would be all.”
“A sharp tongue. I wonder why didn’t you use this tongue against Nobutaka. It’s quite a shame you were demoted to border control the last few weeks. I bet you could have managed Suruga then.”
“Ah, no need to. Very well then, I’ll be leaving for Suruga in two days. You can have this castle as your base of operation. Don’t worry about Okazaki castle, I used Nobutaka to assign some good retainers already. One last thing, can you start training samurais starting the next season?”
In the game, there were three levels of troops: the mass conscript called ashigaru, the core strength of samurais, and the elite class of hero. To recruit the latter the two, the player must have enough researches done and facilities built as required by the game. Hidenaga had told him a similar mechanic was required in this world as well.
“I would put that as the second priority. How many are we talking about?”
“Three thousands as starter, the more the better.”
“I’ll see to it.”
“Very well, anything else you’d like to discuss?”
“Not right now, I will send a messenger later on if needed.”
“Then that’s that. Go get some rest.”
Rene stood up, nodded and turned his back to Hidenaga.
“One last word, this is the man I treat as equal, not the soldier who can execute orders perfectly.”
He turned around halfway, nodded slightly, and then exited the room.
That night, Rene received a call from his old friend.
As planned, Hidenaga left the morning two days later. When midnight came, Rene greeted his old friends at the gate of Hikuma castle.
“Hello, an old face.” Ataki spoke swiftly then leaded the three people group after Rene, into the storage by the castle, in which Rene had prepared a stove, some food, some mattresses, and supplies for two people.
Once they settled down inside the storage, surprisingly spacious and comfortable under the snowy night, Rene and Ataki looked at each other and stared at the confused pair of siblings.
“Well, this is awkward.” Ataki finally spoke up and thawed the ice.
“Ataki, is this man Shinji?” Inagi looked at Rene, a hint of curiosity on his face. In this new body, Rene looked as young as Inagi, and frankly Rene hadn’t even looked at his face once. Kake, as usual, sat quietly next to Ataki.
“Yes, he is.”
“Wait, how did you know who I was at first contact?” Rene asked.
“James laid down the detail, and you’re just too nice and easy to read. You don’t change, kid.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s midnight and snowing. You came all the way to the gate to greet us and stayed here, instead of just assigning us bigger and better rooms and probably won’t ever see me again. Your walking habit, talking habit, the stature, well basically your behavior gives you away.”
“Are you bluffing or are you really talented?”
“I’ve been your spy for how long now?”
Rene poured teas into cups and passed them around, silencing his answer.
“Ataki, who is this man? Have you known him before?” Inagi pressed his curiosity, dropping a bit of jealousy.
“Shinji, do you want to tell us your life story?” Ataki drank from his own bottle of wine. The whole scenery almost made Rene choke on emotions.
“I, eh, I am Matsudaira Kiyoyasu’s bastard, brother of lord Hirotada. I was sent away to my mother because he wanted me to have a safe life, away from wars. I ended up in several retainers’ houses and gradually climbed the rank. Ataki was my good aide back in the day, before he went to meet my brother. So, yeah, that is who I am. Right now, I will need your help in running the Tokugawa court. Lord Hidenaga had granted me the highest court position as a reverence to my late father and as a recognition of my experience. So, please treat me nicely, Inagi.” Rene made up the story right off the bat and had an instant moment of self-admiration.
“Eh, please treat me nicely as well.” The two bowed slightly and looked at each other. Inagi’s complexion relaxed and looked more cheerful.
“So, how was the journey here?”
“Before we get all warm and cozy, I need to report something first.” Ataki put down his bottle. “I want you to report this to your dear friend across the border. Firstly, I’m not bringing Kake with me.”
“What? Why?” Inagi asked before Rene could open his mouth.
“Look here, kid. Where I’m going is harsh and dangerous. Your sister will get in my way and be a burden to me only. Besides, I can’t even guarantee my own safety, let alone hers. Shouldn’t it be better for your sister to stay here, be safe and even be educated? Maybe get a husband and take care of you as well?”
“Inagi, do you want your sister to spend months alone with a strange man in unknown lands?”
“But…” Inagi murmured then stopped.
“How about we talk a bit about this? Inagi, do you want your sister to go with him and why?”
“There’s no room for negotiation, kid.” Ataki mouthed opposition and drank from his bottle.
“It… it was an order from his lord Oda. And, and… I don’t want her to be a maid. She is safer with you than staying here and being eyed on by those grotesque retainers.”
The room’s mood dropped as Inagi’s voice seemingly broke.
“Kake, what do you think?” Rene spoke softly. She took her good time before spoke up.
“As much as I understand your concern, my lord, I am not worthy of your concern. At least, please allow me to be your expendable. I will serve you as diligently as you wish. And if at anytime you wish for me to be gone, I will be.”
“You do know the one to decide this matter will be me eventually, right?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And why do you wish to accompany me?”
“So that my brother can rise in the court without fearing for me.”
To the boys’ amazement, Kake was sharp and decisive with her words, putting Ataki in confusion.
“Well, now, you heard her answer. Even if you deny her request, I will try to persuade you.” Rene forced a laugh.
“Fine, so be it. This is unneeded drama.” Ataki finished his bottle and threw it to the side, taking out of his robe another bottle.
“Onto the next matter, you need to tell your dear friend his little spy girl deserted her rank. Her last assignment was in Mikawa province. Now she’s nowhere to be found, and she held information of his little network. It would be troublesome if she was a traitor, and I couldn’t pursue because of obvious reasons.”
“Who is this little spy girl and on that topic, I thought you had your own earphone. Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“Firstly, I don’t like your friend, let that be clear.” Ataki paused. “Inagi, would you kindly bring Kake to her room and stay there with her for the night? You siblings are about to be separated, best to spend the night together, and she needs to sleep, too.”
The sudden change of topic froze everyone for a moment. Inagi finally nodded and walked with Kake outside, after receiving instruction from Rene.
“Ok, so what’s the situation?” Rene eventually spoke up after a long heavy silence.
“I spent days in a room full of dudes back when you were the daimyo and I liked that. His room had an eye candy and I couldn’t bear being in there for longer than half an hour. I spent the last month playing with his grooms at the stable more than talking with him. It’s just… he’s… he’s talented, maybe even more than you are. But he had this, uncanny thirst, which I don’t like.” Ataki looked grimmer than usual.
“For the time being I will continue my assignment, give him regular reports and so on. But I’ll dial in with you once in a while as well. Don’t think of this as information compartment or anything. I’m a man with a social need as well, and I don’t think the girl will talk much.”
“I see.” Rene looked at the ground, unable to continue. They had been friends for long enough to know each other’s worst. Maybe Rene hadn’t considered what was normal to him was bad to the other.
“Maybe it’s just me overthinking, but I don’t think we will be able to work with each other for a long time. We have different ideals and preferences, I think.”
The mood dampened as quickly as Ataki drank from his bottle.
“Kake felt the same. She’s never been close to the guy, but listening to gossips from the servants alone gave her that impression. Inagi though, he was too young to have that kind of keenness. Luckily, he sent me away on a fool’s errand and the pair back to you.”
“You mean, the brother to me?”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, I’ll keep my word. Don’t tell him this. And watch yourself. You two might have been good old friends, but someday he’ll be the one to send you to hell.”
Ataki finished the second bottle and brought out the third.
“Understood.” Rene silenced himself at this impression of his friend. He knew James well and he was content with his personality. But would James fare well with others, Rene did not know and did not want to think about. If the time came, he would help James to deal with it.
“Speaking of Inagi, are you going to keep that fake story?” Ataki asked.
“I haven’t even made a presence to all the lords in the region. Jim told me the best backstory would be that of a samurai bloodline. At the very least, it’ll allow me to earn their respect. What I told Inagi will be our little secret, he’s a good boy who knows how to earn people’s trust. I need to earn his first.”
“By being a bastard? I think being the same age would do already. Lords in these regions are old assholes. How old are you?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Rene laughed. “People gave me the impression that I’m young, but to what extent?”
“So Hirotada was seventeen, but back then you looked older than Inagi. Now, you’re like a sixteen year old or something. Have you gone through puberty?”
“Get out of here.”
Ataki burst out laughing.
“Well then, I’m just asking because I’m worried for your love life.”
“What? Too young to flirt with maids?”
“No, let’s talk about the spy.” Ataki abruptly changed the subject. “She came from Mikawa, fled to Owari to find mercenary to help her find a friend in Mikawa. Your friend recruited her into the Ryukage, assigned her a commanding position, and she left. She’s skillful, I’ll give you that. But…” Ataki stopped to look at Rene, a cheeky smile showed up on his face.
“What? But what?”
“Her name is Miki, the same girl you had a quickie with back in the day.”
“I kid you not we did nothing.”
As if he shouted at the accusation. He quickly returned to his usual composure at the gleeful sight of Ataki.
“How did you know?”
“You were so secretive about the whole affair before the Okazaki siege so I did my own research. She was a hard catch, making me personally tracking her down. But it was a fun hunt. Then she showed up again at your friend’s place. I recognized her skills.”
“How gifted you are, recognizing people from their skills and behaviors, not the face.” Rene grunted and tried to calm himself down.
“That’s why I get to be the man you trust in the beginning, right?” He laughed and offered Rene his bottle, which Rene took one sip.
“Last bottle, kid. Let’s finish it then go to sleep. I trust your good hand taking care of the brother.”
“Don’t sleep with his sister.”
“Aw, still pissed?”
Rene laughed it off and took turn drinking from the bottle with Ataki. The snow outside picked up its pace but couldn’t drown out the mood inside the small storage. But it did dampen Rene’s mood later into the night, when the drinking stopped, Ataki slept, and the thought of James began to haunt him.
Author: Minh Vu