Suruga, Late Winter 1545 (January 1546)
It had been hectic for Rene since he got back from being a border control captain to being a court member last week. Day one, the trio Henry, Mark, Rosario and him arrived at Hikuma castle and had the briefing with Hidenaga. The next day, the trio left in the morning just before James and his entourage made it to the castle where they had a quick meeting. Ataki and his group arrived at the castle the next night, after Hidenaga had left for Sunpu castle in Suruga province. On the fourth day, Ataki and Kake packed up and headed north to Uesugi domain. On the fifth day, Rene told Inagi to join him to Sunpu where Hidenaga was. Three days later, Rene found himself in the great hall of Sunpu castle, seated behind his own table, dining with a crowd of old men and a few young one. Across from him seated the geneal Nobutaka, looking as satisfied as ever, and on his left was his new “brother” Takechiyo Inagi. Matsudaira Hidenaga sat in the central table, overlooking two lines of tables running from the main inner room, where all the lords were, to the outer room, which sat all the lords’ retainers and captains.
“My loyal lords and servants, we gather today to celebrate the unification of the Mikawa, Totomi, and Suruga people under the Tokugawa banner. The last of the filthy and treacherous bloodline Imagawa had been eradicated. We united the people of this land for the peace and prosperous they deserve, which the old lord had failed to provide.”
Hidenaga had his way with words. Either that or the people in this room cared for their clan less than their own fortune. They were all lords and bloodlines of the three provinces, or at least all the leftover after the major bloodlines had been wiped out because of the Okazaki incident and the Imagawa defeat.
“I, Tokugawa Hidenaga, the true regent of the late lord Tokugawa Hirotada, swear on my blade your honor and your wealth. Those who seek glory on the battlefield, join my ranks. Those who seek the clan’s fortune, join the court. Swear your fealty, and the clan will answer. On my right here sits my great general Matsudaira, his approval will sharpen your swords. On my left here sits my loyal retainer Takechiyo and his brother in blood. Seek his approval if you want a seat in the court. Power and fame awaits you. But for now, feast.”
And with that, the few fifty men or so in the hall began the great feast. Servants ran back and forth bringing food to the tables while geishas and performers did whatever they do with all those seated. The scene became chaotic really fast with that much sake being served and that many men yelling and shouting uncontrollably. Nobutaka and Hidenaga joined the party, at some points standing on their tables and singing with the geishas. The only people who didn’t seem to enjoy this at all were Rene and Inagi. They sat silently at their corner and tried to finish their servings while watching the circus show.
Despite the obvious discontent, Rene was the one who proposed they did a court meeting like this. It served two purposes, to make a formal introduction of the standing court and smooth out the transition to the new regime, and to give Rene the tools to do things. When he declared his intention to fiddle with the economy, Rene thought of spending days in his room with Inagi like he did back then, looking over all the papers filled with numbers and writing others with words. When he was Hirotada, he rarely met with any retainers or lords, simply because he didn’t have to. He could do things like building infrastructures, investing and raising an army, with a special kind of paper like that one listing the names of court member, which would act like a game input mechanism. Now that the Okazaki castle was burned and restored, he had lost that kind of paper and so must resort to the traditional way as James did, living.
That would mean doing things a career politician in Washington would do, canvassing, raising funds, lobbying, organizing bloc and the likes, and in a much different fashion. There was no nationalism or patriotism, all of these men reeked of lust and greed. It was a hybrid of the European feudal system and the representative democratic one: the lord had total control of their local regions where their castle stood, governing a piece of land full of resources and people to tax. They would contribute to the wealth and the army strength of the clan, donating money and men from their local lands. With that leverage, they would want to send their blood into the court and the war room, gaining their power and influence so that they would get more share after a conquest or a profit. More or less, Rene saw the Congress in those families, trying to send their kids over to the Executive branch.
“My lord, are you finished?” Said Inagi. In the eyes of the public, Rene inherited a samurai bloodline and adopted Inagi into the family so that the brother could also be in the court. It was a story full of lies, but Rene liked it.
“Just Shinji is fine, I told you. I’ll excuse myself, please stay and endure the rest of the meeting. Send me a runner if the lords need any help.”
Rene promptly stood up and left the hall. He had always hated this kind of event. Rather, he enjoyed the feeling of missing out, enjoying the solitude outside of the place everyone had gathered. He went to the upper floors of the emptied rooms, found himself an open window and savored the moonlight outside with a bottle of sake. It had stopped snowing, the weather got warmer and there were more puddles than ice on the ground. Spring was coming.
“I heard that wine tasted better with a beautiful scene and a beautiful woman.”
Rene turned his head around instantly and almost dropped the bottle. A maiden in the castle servant outfit walked in the emptied room with a tray of food and bottles.
“Miki.” He tried to swallow with his dried throat.
“Ah, my lord, may I join you in the drinking?” She put a finger on her lips while approaching him, her head tilting to the side and let her long hair slide. He sat there dumbfounded like the first time he met her. She laid the tray down next to them and sat next to him by the window.
“Hello Rene, it’s good to see you well and alive.” She whispered cheerfully.
“I’m sorry I got killed.”
He murmured in his mouth. He looked away from her, his expression dampened.
“I’m sorry I’m no longer a daimyo. I’m sorry I have not as much power as I did. And I wasted so much time I could have used to find you, or to do anything useful for the war effort. But I never forgot about your wish and my promise, and…” He lowered his head as she sat across from him at the window. She gently raised his head with her hands.
“Hey, it’s ok. There’s no need to say sorry.”
She retracted her hands. Rene inhaled deeply and rested his back on the side, avoiding her eyes.
“How did you know?” He finally spoke after regained his calmness.
“Know about what?”
“Me, being here.”
“I followed you, of course.”
“You owe me a promise.”
She hid half of her smile behind a bottle.
“If so, I believe there’s no need to ask of how I have been doing.” He chugged his bottle. “That said, how are you?”
“Things have been interesting for me, to say the least. I wandered across the border, met with Oda Nobuhide, joined his spies and deserted the rank, then followed you around.”
“How did you end up in here as a maid?”
“Who said I was a maid?” She departed from the window side and hid her face from the moonlight. “You want some sushi? I made them myself.”
“I would love one.” He replied and waited for her.
“Well then, go grab one for yourself.” She smiled and went back to her seat. He simply grinned.
“So, royal court member? I assumed there are more than just us around here?”
“Yeah, there’s actually a council of human players up in the north, in the Uesugi domain. They have people everywhere, trying to unite every human players and win the game. Somehow I felt that you would have been better off knowing them since you first entered… this world.”
“It was unlucky indeed.”
“But now that you’re here, I don’t think I will ever introduce you to them.”
“…No real reason.”
“What is this?” She laughed.
“No, yes, there is a reason. It’s up to you to decide what to do next. But introducing you to them would mean you working for them, having some sort of uses to them. I can fulfil my promise without making you going through that kind of contract, but, eh, as I said, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do, so… what are you going to do?”
“That is an excessively elaborated way to ask me a simple question, don’t you think?”
“And an equally excessively long response.” Rene said, waiting for her to answer.
“Well, for the time being, I want you to meet someone first. You might want to don your outfit.”
Miki stood up, walked toward the sliding door and opened it, upon which revealed a man in robe.
“Lord Arima of the Tokugawa domain, Arima Tadayou. His real name is Julian, Jule for short.”
“Nice to meet you, please treat me nicely.”
That was English, alright.
Rene stood up, donned his robe, removed the earphone, and replied in formal Japanese.
“The honor is mine, please treat me nicely as well.”
The man looked old, probably passing forty in years. Yet, he had the manner and the aura of a confident young man, the kind the reminded Rene of a spy in a suit or a businessman at the war table. The three in the room promptly sat in proper manner, Rene facing Arima and Miki next to Rene. Something is not right with this arrangement.
“Allow me to enjoy the informality just a little bit. I wish not to conduct this meeting in the name of lords, but rather, people in the same boat.” Arima spoke first, in a soft and warm tone that reminded Rene of a high-class British gentleman.
“As you wish, sir.”
“Ah, not in the English formality as well, if you may. I simply grew too tired of all the politeness the people here have shown. My apology for demanding too much of you in our first meeting.”
“That is unnecessary. If you forgive my rudeness, I want to ask of your intention. Why do you want to meet me?”
“To introduce myself properly and to speak on the behalf of my people. As Jule, I have been in this world for six years now. But as a lord in the Arima family bloodline, this is my third year, the first two years as Tadayori and now as Tadayou, after the last round ended. I speak on behalf of the residents on the Arima land, both the Japanese people native to this world and the human players. We wish for nothing but peace and prosperity for the land.”
“Forgive me, but how is that different from the intention of the other clans, AI and human alike?”
“To put it simply, we wish for ignorance is bliss. The people on the land of Arima domain do not want to enter war. We will contribute our best to the war effort, but not as soldiers. That is all we ask.”
Rene stole a glance at Miki, who had her face hidden behind the long dark hair.
“May I ask why haven’t you come to me before? I suppose your clan must have known about me.”
“Without disrespect, you had Arima Tadayori, the former head of our clan and the human leader, killed in the siege of Okazaki. I understood that it wasn’t in your original intention, but it did make us rethink our plan to stay in the shadow. At the very least, having you known about us is a mutual benefit. We have the resources and you will guarantee us a safe haven in our own little land.”
“Don’t be. You did well protecting the Tokugawa clan and by extension, our people. If anything, it is your life and his for us.”
“What of him now? Did you find him?”
“Sadly, we’re trying our best.”
In the corner of his eye, Rene found a shaking Miki.
“With all that said, I, as a fellow human and a servant of lower standing, a lord of the same land, sincerely wish for your agreement. Safeguard us, and we will provide with the best we can.”
Rene closed his eyes for a moment, his mind going blank.
“You have my word. But in the following days, please remain in the castle so that we can work out the specific. Forgive the practical thinking, but I will need something in return and make sure everything run…”
“I understand. For the time being, Arima Miki here will stay in the castle and act as our liaison. I will rush back to our land to spread the news and prepare the condition as negotiated.”
Rene turned his head and stared.
“Staring is rude, my lord.”
“Ah, sorry. Anyway, what are the conditions and terms? Just briefly.”
“On our end, we will contribute capitals, including foodstuff, material for war efforts, and human players that can help run the court. We have a few, up to five, some accountants, administrators, and Miki here can act as your bodyguard. In addition, if there is any AI or human players that wish to join the rank, I wish only for their safety. Any further clauses can be negotiated. On your end, there are two clauses. One, you must keep the Arima clan out of any war, both within and outside of the Tokugawa domain. I wish for my people not to get tangled up with the political conflict between the minor clans. And while we will contribute to the clan war effort, we wish that we remain out of any the negotiation you will make with other major clan. And in the scenario that the Tokugawa clan is destroyed, we wish that our loyalty is not in your consideration. Two, we wish that you keep the human players existence in Arima domain hidden from the Liberation Council.”
“They call themselves the Liberation Council, or Council of the human player to all new players, implying that they include all of the human players, and that all human players wish to play by their rule. It is a fair contract; we give up our autonomy and follow the Council’s orders so that in the end, everyone wins. But gradually, some of us realize our thinking are not aligned. We want to quit, but the Council wouldn’t allow that. It would have us jailed to keep us close and not disrupt their war plan. It would explain that it’s not jailing but keeping us in the back line, away from the war and just enjoy peace, so that we remain in its watch and can be freed when it unites the country. That’s nothing different from being on parole. Thus said, we simply wish to avoid its stare and live our simple and ignorant lives. Will you allow us this simple wish?”
“If I do, would I also fight in your stead against the Council so that in the end your people will also be freed from this world?”
Tadayou scratched his chin and smiled awkwardly.
“Some of us have wished to stay here in this world. We fell in love of this country and this reality. So you wouldn’t have to worry about that. You can ally yourself with the Council, fight for them, but please do not get us involved with them.” He paused for a bit and looked at Rene in the eyes. “But in the case that you do, I would warn you to expect atrocious orders like genocide and slavery. They treat non-human players nothing like human, simply machine and animal to be exploited. Well, they even treat human players like a tool already.”
Rene caught himself sneaking a glance at Miki.
“I agree to the terms and I thank you for your information. Let us have an agreement written on papers when we’re ready, so that I am held accountable.”
“That would be unnecessary, but my people and I are grateful of your decision. For now, if you excuse me, my absence shouldn’t be noticed by anyone in the hall. I leave Miki in your care.”
Tadayou bowed, then stood up and left the room. Rene just sat there for a full minute staring at where he sat and thinking about what had just happened. He finally snapped out of it and walked back to his seat by the window.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, my lord?” Miki returned to her seat at the window, bringing a bottle for him and her.
“Two things, actually. When there are just us, can you just talk to me like before, no formality? And, is there any other pocket of human players like the Arima clan, unwilling to cooperate with the Council?” He took the bottle from her and finished it in one shot.
“As you wish, my lord.” She winked, adding the formality after a small pause to invite a laugh from a tensed Rene, and continue. “There is. A lot, actually, and with different sizes and purposes.”
“There are people who hate the Council’s way of doing things, like Tadayou. There are others who band together to survive, because they don’t know of this world as a game. There are also people who just want to stay here, not just in this world but away from the old one, isolating themselves from anything that could remind them of the past they had on the other side. It’s a complicated world with complicated people, you know.”
“Do you mind if I ask how close you are to the Arima clan?”
“Close enough that the man adopted me as his daughter. But, I have my way of doing things, so you shouldn’t be concerned.”
“I understand.” Rene finished a bottle and found himself another before continued. “What is your purpose?”
“To escape this world, I told you already, didn’t I?”
“And what have you done already to reach your objective? How many clans have you taken the name? How many people’s trust have you gained?”
Rene spoke without looking at her. She took her time to answer, her deep breathe calmed Rene down.
“I have been Baba Miki, Akiyama Miki, Ichijou Miki, and a lot more Miki. I’ve been in the Takeda land, further up north in the minor clans like Jinbo and Hatakeyama, in the Kyoto region and even enjoyed briefly the court life. I’ve gained a lot and barely lost any.”
“Then, that five days in the village of Kyo, was that a play to gain my trust as well?”
“I could have said no and you wouldn’t believe me anyway, right? The art of gaining someone’s trust is, you tell them a little truth, trust them a little and they’ll trust you more.”
“Isn’t that right, I completely trust you, completely let my guard down, right? What are you doing here with me? I have nothing left to offer.”
“To serve as a liaison between the Arima clan and you as a member of the court. Also, to serve as your bodyguard.”
“So, to hold me accountable on my end and keep me from any source of influence that can tip the favor against the Arima clan?” He chuckled.
“Also, to kill you, if you decide anything against our terms. I see you’re no stranger to politics.”
“So, I’m stuck with you?”
“Think on the bright side, you have a very cute and pretty personal servant.”
“You think too highly of yourself.”
“Oh come on, I know how you feel about me.”
Rene kept the bottle in front of him, hiding the red on his face.
“Arima Miki. I told you that I trust you, right?”
“Yes, you did.”
“You know that even if you kill me right now, I would still trust that you have good reason, right?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Can I trust you, Miki?”
He threw the bottle aside and leaned toward her, gazing at her eyes.
“Are you alright?”
“I would like to believe that tonight, right now, I’m being drunk, not because I am a lightweight, but because you have seduced me, getting me to do things as you will.”
He held her hand and lowered it, away from her body.
“You never lie to me. More like, you’ve never told me everything. That’s not lying, but that’s also not trusting me. You have your reason, and I’m just a nobody that you can use as a tool. So I’m being irrational right now. Just tell me once, when I still can talk without thinking. What am I to you?”
He leaned closer. He pushed her back against the window frame.
“Arima Tadayori. You were shaking when you heard his name. You told me before you didn’t know any other human players. And now you’re with the whole clan, having their trust to kill another man. And you were shaking. What is it? A play to fool me? Or he is indeed that one man you fell for? I’m sorry if I had your boyfriend killed, stolen away from you, but should I be?”
She retreated from the window seat. He followed, cornered her against the wall, one hand on the wall and the other gripping her soft hand.
“I will still keep my promise. It is a promise. But will I be a fool to do so? I want to trust you. But who am I putting my trust on? I’ve been betrayed, both in this and that world. I’m afraid of being betrayed. Will you betray me?”
He dropped his head and let it dangled.
“I want to trust you. Just tell me, which you I am trusting.”
He felt his strength was losing him. His knees were shaking, his hand losing the touch of the wall. He finally collapsed knee first, but she caught him and held him up. She laid him down on the ground and fixed his outfit.
“I’ll be back.”
He tried his best to grab her hand when she turned away.
“When the morning come I’ll remember all this, and I’ll regret the fact that I had acted like this. But now that I can’t regret, let me be like this for a while longer.”
His voice broke. He put a hand over his eyes, the other trying to pull her closer.
“I want us to be just friends, like we were back when we first met. I want to see you just as Miki, not as this new person I just know today. I wish that I never had to know this. But now that I know it, I wish that I could keep myself sane enough to help you, all of you, all of the Miki that I know. What did I say back then? I would know when I’m being tricked. Right now, let me be tricked. Ignorance is bliss, right?”
He felt his grip loosened from her hands and his mind shut down. He uttered the last few words which drifted away from his memory forever then entered the slumber.
“Hey, kid, wake up, got work for you.”
Rene opened his eye to find Hidenaga by his mattress.
“Is it morning?”
“It’s afternoon. I have an order for you.”
“What is it?” He tried to sit up, feeling tired and hungover.
“Run to Owari and get a trade agreement. One of the retainers brought that up last night. I called Nobuhide and he said just bring a ten men entourage, meet with his lady and work things out. Can you do it?”
“Yeah, I’ll get that done.”
“Good, then get up and get dress. You have two days. Morning of the third day from now, you’ll be back here and attend the first royal court with all the retainers and lord in the region.”
“You heard me, get your ass up. I got you a nice girl outside, waiting to clean you up real good. Get going ok? And be back as soon as possible.”
“What about staying close to you for the earphone?” Rene lied flat on his back, trying to excuse not going.
“The grand strategy isn’t kicking in until this fall. There won’t be any need for that. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go home.”
Hidenaga laughed then left the room. Rene heard the sliding door slammed and turned on his side, trying to find that last moment of sleep. He heard the door opened again.
“My lord, I have prepared your outfit and a light meal. I have also called for your brother, he is assembling the entourage.”
Rene popped up and stared at the servant who just came in.
“Well, eh, thank you. What’s your name?”
“Arima Miki, my lord.”
“You’re to join the entourage. Talk to Inagi and tell him we’ll move out in one hour. I’ll meet you and the men in the courtyard.”
“Yes, my lord.” She promptly replied and left the room. Rene watched until her sight vanished, listened until her footsteps no longer audible, then started cursing himself while getting change.
It took nearly a day to reach Owari from Suruga, probably because half of the entourage was sons from noble clan who weren’t used to horse riding. The Oda clan welcomed them warmly, already prepared rooms and a meal for everyone. They took half an hour rest then met with the Oda court and lady Tsuchida, beginning the negotiation when the night was still dark.
“The Oda court and I welcome the friends of the Oda clan.”
“The honor is ours. We thank you for the hospitality. My lady, I offer my sincerest apology for this short notice meeting at such a late hour.”
“It is all my lord’s wish. I do not mind at all. What have you come to offer?”
“We wish for safe passage and less tax against goods and merchants coming from the Oda domain in exchange for safe passage and less tax against our goods and merchants. In addition, we would like to discuss specific tradable goods that can be of mutual interest, such as our horses and the Oda’s better crafts. Next, we would like to assure the stability of the currency koku and ensure stable inflation rate. Lastly, we would like to discuss about opening trading houses and trading guilds, in the name of both clans.”
Rene spoke as slowly as he acceptably could to give him some time remembering the things he had learned. Trade agreement in the old world was to abolish tariffs against foreign goods and therefore promoting trade between nations, benefiting the consumers and the states. But in this one, according to his entourage, it also enabled the safety of the merchants, granting them rights on foreign land. There were daimyos who cared little for merchants, seeing them as the lowest class in the society and thus, wouldn’t safeguard them from bandits or even their own samurais. Other daimyos who had a special interest would try to exploit the merchants, extorting them and forcing them to become spy against their homeland. In either scenario, trade agreement had more of a political meaning than an economic one.
“I assume you’re the Tokugawa daimyo’s right hand in this matter? Such a young man with a talent.” Lady Tsuchida spoke calmly, flashing an aura that charmed all of Rene’s retainers. In the usual court arrangement, Rene sat in the front, following by Inagi and Miki, then the rest of the entourage in the back. He felt the whispers behind him full of foul intention.
“It is an honor, my lady. What say you in the matter?”
“I accept the term, as per requested by my lord. But might I ask what are the houses and guilds in the name of our clans mean?”
“It would be an organized power, uniting the merchants and traders of both lands so that they can compete against traders from other regions, benefiting at the outsiders’ expense.”
“You seem to have a particular interest in the merchants. Forgive my rudeness, do you have a brother that is a merchant? Or perhaps, your wife? A cunning woman to suit such a talented young man.”
Rene felt Miki snickering behind him, whereas an uncomfortable aura emitting from Inagi. He was probably blushing, unable to comprehend these personal snipes.
“Unfortunately, my lady, I am only a servant to the clan. I do not have the fortune nor the time to find such a lady.”
“Perhaps, I could introduce one of my bloods or the clan’s bloods to you? I believe my husband would welcome the idea of having you as a brother to Nobunaga.”
Rene realized he had fallen into a trap.
“I would warmly welcome your offer, but perhaps another time, my lady? I have to return to my lord’s side in two days.”
“Forgive me for my jolly remarks. Let us return to the meeting. I accept the terms. You shall have my court and yours prepared a contract together in the room next door. And once we’re finished, allow me to entertain you with the finest beauty of the Oda domain.”
I’m gonna kill you James.
For that night and the next, Rene constantly fended off invitation from the servants, seeking safe haven in the room where all the irritated and jealous retainers were working on the specifics of the agreement. He shied away from Miki as well, sleeping in the study room and working extra hours on the agreement, unexpectedly gained the respect of retainers from both clans who watched him work. By early morning of the third day, the agreement was completed and Rene hurried the entourage to go back, happily thinking he had escaped an earthly hell.
Author: Minh Vu