Suruga, Spring 1546
As the season settled in, so were the people of the land.
Rene had moved into a small house on the hill overlooking the Sunpu castle. It had a thatched roof and three walls made of round logs, leaving one with sliding door as an entrance. The house sat in a sparse patch of the forest, had only two rooms separated by a sliding door, a secret basement, and a garden for wild grass in the back. Early every morning he would left for the castle and returned late at midnight. He would take a detour to the city close to the castle first, having a sip of tea in a shop while watching the street. Sometimes, he would bought some snack for his “brother” Inagi, who lived in a quarter in the castle, below the retainer’s floor and above the servant’s lounge.
It was all peaceful on the surface.
Hidenaga had been working on the administration system and the security. He confined everything into clan’s land and vassal’s land, referring to anything that lied under the jurisdiction of the clan and the minor clans, respectively. The minor clan once had authority over its situated castle and the neighboring land patches, but had since been stripped off its assets. In return, Hidenaga granted them total freedom inside their owned land, including their own legal system and economic influence, meaning no tax, no police. This arrangement turned a minor clan into a village in nature, but the vassal clan’s head still agreed, mainly because they were blinded by their positions in the court. With the official court member system in the game, Rene and Hidenaga became the de facto rulers, their decisions uninfluenced by the court. On the surface, Hidenaga courted them with the arrangement, and deep under, he ruled by force. This leadership style quickly brought things into order, even though it was not even a month since the Imagawa remained.
He also dealt with the mass expertly. With Ataki and the Ryukage gone, he had made it so that only two network of intelligence maintained in the three provinces. One was the official police network, ran by the Tokugawa clan and only answered to him. This network improved upon the game system, the metsuke agent, and managed the security and order of the public as well as the administrators. The other network was his own. Honoring their agreement, Rene didn’t pry much into them, but he could feel their presence choking the lives out of the ordinary people every day. How they could do this, he knew not.
Rene himself was also in some sort of house arrest. But unlike the ordinary people, he did so out of his own will.
“My lord, tea is ready.”
“Leave it there. Thank you. You are excused.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Yet, she remained in the corner.
She was the only difference in addition the size of the room and the absence of Ataki. With Rene’s instruction, Hidenaga had the room arranged like the one in Okazaki, a window overlooking a table, and two more sitting on both side of the entrance. Stacks of papers filled the room, the scribbling noise Inagi made, the smell of ink like a grain of salt spoiling hot tea, they reminded Rene of the peaceful days of the past. Not that girl. She was a nuance as much as a speck of dust in the room, had less of a presence than Kake did, but somehow he always saw her kneeling, her small shoulders, the curl of hair that covered her face.
It wasn’t any better that they didn’t talk, and he was trying his best to avoid her. As long as he was in the castle, he knew he would find her around the corner, in the courtyard, outside of the room waiting. And soon enough, he found her on the lines he was writing, on anyone’s face, even on the drawings painted on the paper walls.
He sought work to distract him from this distraction named Miki.
A few weeks later, when things had became routine, the Tokugawa received an envoy from the neighboring clan.
The Hojo sent ten men over the border, no armor, no weapons, no bodyguards. Hidenaga welcomed them with a small room for each, a personal bodyguard each while they remained, and an opening feast, as if the clan was receiving a daimyo or a general. Yet, he instructed Rene not to show his face to them before the negotiation. Since their arrival, Rene had been watching on the sideline, gathering information on the guests thanks to Inagi. He was grateful regardless, excusing himself from the feast and unnecessary social interaction with them.
On the third night, Rene was called to a room in the dungeon. Sat in the room was Hidenaga, a person from the envoy, and Inagi in the corner, behind a table with some papers and ink.
“Takechiyo, this is Hanada from the Hojo clan. He is the head of this convoy. Hanada, this is Takechiyo, my commissioner of finance.” Hidenaga spoke, gestured his hands to introduce.
Rene reached for the extended hand, then sat down next to Hidenaga, both facing Hanada.
“Let’s cut to the chase. I am a human, representing the Hojo daimyo in this negotiation. I would like to establish a trade agreement between the two clans. Here are the terms as you can see on this sheet. Briefly, we would like to establish a constant supply of warhorse in exchange for craft and pottery which our clan controls. In addition, we would like to abolish tariffs and heavy taxation on merchants and small business. Our regulation will match that of yours.”
Hanada stopped. Hidenaga skimmed through the parchment he just received and handed it to Rene.
“What small business?”
“Oh, you know, it’s war time. Weapon dealers, odds and trinkets, wandering drug stores, then all sort of entrepreneurs trying to try their luck in the new place.”
Rene read the parchment point by point. Nothing unusual emerged, just the standard he did in Owari.
“Those are expected, but if they want to try their luck here, I believe they would want to cut tie with your clan. In such cases, they will answer to our jurisdiction. I think you can understand that much.”
“Of course, of course, I was just testing you.”
“Now I have a question here, Hanada. It says in here that there should be a border control, checking what kind of goods are going through and giving permission to sell those goods inside Hojo domain. What does this achieve?”
“You have to ask? It’s just bureaucratic. My lord wants to make sure we have a tight grasp on what we have. At one point, we were short of food, and some greedy traders monopolized the food source coming from Suruga province. We just want to make sure these permission slips can deter such action.”
“Wouldn’t they act as non-tariff barrier themselves?”
“It’s just bureaucracy. Of course, the control is joint and you get the information as well. And we won’t deny permission. If anything, we just want to keep count. On the other hand, you are free to do anything on your side of the border.”
“Dial it down, you’ve been a bit cocky kid.” Hidenaga cut in and raised his voice.
“I didn’t mean to. But if he has to ask me such simple question, I doubt he is any savvier than you.”
Rene ignored the verbal fight happening right next to him and fixated on the term. Excluding tariff meant there was no real motivation for the clan to take the deal, since it wasn’t the game mechanic nor the actual history, but rather a modern concept. In the past and the game, it meant more income for the state. In this context and the old world, it meant promoting private business and production. Rene had never understood much about economic warfare, just briefly skimmed through them in class, let alone conducting preparation for one. So he was a bit nervous, trying to find an angle to this deal.
“Hey, you’re a college student too, right?”
“I see the way you hold that piece of paper. Different from the old man here, so I guess.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“Are you in business or finance?”
“None, but I have some understanding on economic.”
Hanada just burst out laughing.
“Sorry, but I just can’t see how you two can run an economy. Let me just ask you, do you know what is as good as gold in these time?”
Rene glanced at Hidenaga, who was showing no emotion at all, probably holding his anger, then replied.
“I probably can have a wild guess.”
“Then you’re no better than this old man. It’s rice.”
“Because it feeds soldiers?”
“No, fool. Because it is gold. Consider that free information. You probably don’t understand anything about this deal, so let me bring out the kind of language you will understand.”
Hanada snatched the parchment from his hands and reached in his satchel another roll of parchment. Hidenaga received the piece, glanced at it, then handed it to Rene. It rephrased things and added a line to each term, providing an example to clarify what the term implied. Rene thought it was just a different version of the contract, but it seemed he was wrong.
Hidenaga cleared his throat. Both of the younger ones stared at him. He simply shook his legs and glanced at Rene.
“Why don’t you keep reading? They consider us fool already, might as well keep reading a bit and be a smarter fool.”
Hanada smacked his leg and laughed aloud. But Rene kept his stare at Hidenaga for a moment longer. Then back to the parchment. Some terms were different. They abolished tariffs on state-controlled goods, specifically the horse and the crafts, but increased the tax rate on merchants, the private sectors. They also increased the bureaucratic burden, adding on regulation, information control, and permission to operate business.
Hidenaga kept Hanada engaged in a conversation, but it became white noise to Rene. He did not have enough information about the Hojo domain, Ataki did not provide him on a regular basis and he had no spies, let alone economic spies. But he knew enough about his own domain. The Tokugawa merchants were consolidating and beginning to thrive. More importantly, they had entered guilds and partnerships with many of the Oda one. This could hurt potentially weighed down the advantage they had over the Hojo competitors, but given the contract, they would compete in equal fields. Regardless, Hidenaga had given him the decision. They would play the fool.
“It seemed good for me. We accept the contract.”
“Great. The lord did a fine work didn’t he? Very well then, let’s sign it.”
The conclusion was simple. Some signatures, some handshakes, and Inagi quickly escorted the man out of the room, leaving Rene and Hidenaga behind.
“Why did you want me to take the deal?” Rene asked once he was sure no one else was around.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained. By the way things are, our fight is here. I understand well what they want and how things will play out. But I have faith in our talent and our court. They think us fool, we will play the fool. We will play for the long game and turn the table against them. That said, the only thing I don’t understand is, why is rice gold?”
“I have a guess, but I will need some researches to make sure.”
“Very well then, good job. Have a good…”
“Wait. I want to go to the library tomorrow.”
Rene called to the daimyo as he took his step to the door. The library was a special location, being more than just the old landmark where the last of Imagawa stood. In the game, only some provinces had special resources called “specialty” in the game. These resources provided additional benefits to the clan controlling them, such as the warhorse stable in Mikawa province providing a surplus of well-breed warhorses.
“About the rice thing?”
“That, and I want to see how much we can make use of it, confirming what you said. I haven’t really tested out what we can do with all the resources available in the game.”
“I’m fine with that, but wait until they leave. They did not mention it once so I don’t want to ring a bell for them. And finish your job here in the court before you leave.”
Hidenaga waved good night then left.
Two days later, Rene and Miki headed to the library together, no escort, no bodyguard, just the two of them on two horses. Inagi stayed behind to fill in Rene’s position, and Hidenaga couldn’t careless about which maid Rene was “taking” with him. Simply put, he was stuck with her.
The library had three buildings shaped like a letter “U”. The librarians lived in one branch of the complex and the other two housed a forest of parchments and books, sitting neatly on the shelves. Originally, it was a temple complex with more buildings surrounding a pagoda. Some decades ago, the monks left and so the local turned it into a school then gradually, a library, building upon the writing the monks left behind. Rene wondered if it was the actual history of this place, or it was simply to fit with the game mechanics.
In the game, this resource, called “philosophical tradition”, would offer either increased research rate of technology, unlocking more available buildings and military units, or bonus administrative stats, such as the population’s happiness, bonus tax rates, and better trained administrators. That said, it could only be either way, improved research rate, or better welfare for the population. I might have to downgrade it back to tier one, the school, to change to “magistrate” for the economy. I spoke with the librarians earlier, they would need some serious funding to keep the place running, let alone expanding its archives. I think they mentioned something about a basement in one of the buildings. I should check that tomorrow.
Now about the economy. In the game, there were two ways. One, I can focus on farming, increase the food production so that the towns will expand its population. More people, more tax. Two, I can focus on expanding the market, invest in the private sector. It will hurt the food production, losing farmers to merchants and business, but the wealthier the people, the better tax they would pay. These two strategies, if I remember correctly, would also affect how much an individual castle town will grow. The town is measured in its wealth, which consists of a fixed income from farming, a fixed income from commerce which depends on the province’s existing infrastructure, and a base wealth which can grow over time. This growth rate is influenced by the strategy, which…
Rene looked up.
“You look attractive when you are focus, you know that?”
Miki lit up another candle, put it on his left side so that it could shine on the pages covered by Rene’s hand. Rene looked outside. It was nightfall. They were sitting opposite from each other, in a workstation in the main building.
“I thought you went to sleep already?”
Rene coughed, ignoring the obvious attempt to distract him.
“I’ve been sitting here since morning with you. Hungry? I can get you some food.”
“No, no, I’m fine. You can get dinner without me.”
He watched Miki smiled then returned to her reading before he went back to his work himself.
Where was I? Since he came to office, the taxation seemed be more efficient. His daily check on the report book ensured minimal corruption, getting back the treasury lost to embezzlement. With the two Arima clerks that Tadayou promised, tax collection became even better. They were office workers back in the day, so they knew well how to handle paper work and speed up the processing. They liked their current job. It reminded them of their past, working nine to five weekdays and going on trips with family on weekends. They are nice people. Maybe that’s why they wanted this job in the first place.
“Can I hold your hand?”
Rene stared at her.
“Yeah.” He extended his left hand, which Miki held with both of hers.
“I thought you hate me?”
“Maybe, but I don’t care about that.”
He tried to look back on his piece of paper. Her readings had been put to her side.
“Wake me up if you need me.”
He looked at her until she slept. Her breathing slowed down, matched the rhythm of the dancing light. The night grew quiet and cold. The breeze swept through, playing with her hair. He put his brush to the side to put the curl over her ear. He stopped gazing at her.
He needed to focus. He was reading archives of the local economy. He needed to find ways to sustain and improve the clan economy. A strong economy would lead to better army, which then meant more conquered lands, and eventually a way out.
Soft. And cold. I can’t remember the last time I was this close to a girl.
He curled his index finger and caressed her nose with the joint. He couldn’t resist. But after some seconds of extreme bliss, he retracted his hand, and covered his face with it.
“You are terribly shy for a boy your age.”
Miki tightened her grasp on his hand, pulled herself up and smiled sheepishly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I was distracted.”
“So, is it affection for me that stops you from hating me? Or is it lust?”
She walked her fingers on his arm, closing in on his shoulder.
He turn his left hand over, held hers down on the table.
“None of them. It is trust.” He spoke without looking at her. He heard her giggles. They both slowly pulled their hands back.
“I trust you, enough that no matter what I do, you won’t think too badly of me.”
“Despite me being the spy, fooling you around?”
“We still have that to settle, but I don’t hold that against you.”
“You are truly a fascinating person.”
She smiled, resting her head on her arm.
“All the people I charmed before, they all freaked out and hated me once they found out, even if I was working for their best interest. Or worse, they thought I was just a pawn in the chess set and tried to use me. They despised my method. What kind are you then, Rene? The bad, the worse, or the ugly?”
Rene didn’t know what to say. But he tried, after some long minutes.
“The coward. I fell in love with you since day one. But once I realized your method, I held myself back. I don’t hate spies and the like. In fact, I like them and understand the need for their existence. Then I understand that I have never been fooled by a spy before. So I cannot tell if I was avoiding you because of who you are, or because of who I want you to be.”
He inhaled then exhaled deeply. He looked her in the eyes, stared at her pupils and put his hand on the table with the palms open.
“Was it…was that a confession?”
“A forced and unnatural one. I thought about keep avoiding you until I can probably figure it out, then maybe find a good setting to make that confession. But consider the time we’re in, such affection is trivial.”
He smiled, awkwardly scratched his chin. She was smiling, but not the kind he usually saw. Her cheekbone raised a bit higher than usual, her mouth slightly open and her head tilted to the side.
“What are you expecting out of this?”
“Nothing. But it makes my peace. I rather speak out and sort things out with you than playing this hide and seek. I need to know where you stand, so that I can help you while fighting the war ahead.”
“You want to help me because?”
“I made a promise.”
“Are you a bit too fixated on it?”
“Consider it one of my few irrationalities.”
He murmured. She laughed, and extended her hand. He grasped it.
“I am willingly to let you fool me, but just tell me, if any of this is sincere, ok? So that I won’t get the wrong idea. I will play the sheep, you the wolf, no need to flirt…”
Rene held her hand a bit too tight.
“The first time I did the play, he thought I was just a courtesan and raped me. I slowly learned to use love as a weapon, sometimes lust as well. I turned to killing once in a while, but regardless, no one had ever trusted me that much, and that is before knowing my role in this world.”
The fleeting image of Ataki putting a blade to his neck the first time they met crossed Rene’s mind.
“Don’t be. It’s not like I’m a pure and innocent girl who needs shelter and safe haven. Unlike you.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
He said, trying to cheer up, but his other hand reached for hers, covered it in between both of his.
“I wonder if you would still feel the same if I was just some ugly chick.”
Rene tried his best not to change his expression, making it stiff like the face of a table, while she burst out laughing having seen his effort.
“I can assume safely that you have died before?”
“Not just die. I did the transformation.”
“What is it?”
She retracted her hand, turned her whole body to the side and let her long hair sheltered her from him.
“Whatever, right? At worst, I’ll just flirt with you again.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are two things reminding us that this world isn’t ours. The first is the contract between human players, or in other words, letters appearing out of thin airs. The second one is this. If a human player and a nonhuman person died together, at the same time, by the same attack of the same weapon, the player will reincarnated with the body of that nonhuman person. Height, weight, skin, face, everything.”
She lowered her head. Rene stared at her in awe.
“The first human I met taught me this trick. She used it to transfer me to another body. Ever since, whenever I need, I have to do this, so that I can keep on performing my role. It’s a fucked up world.”
Rene couldn’t avert his gaze. He stood up, went around the table and sat behind her back, his sight never left where he glued it.
“Hey, it’s ok.”
He raised his hand, wanting to pat on her back.
She stood up, moved away from him. She turned around, slightly bowed forward.
“I’m going to bed first. Feel free to come by, I’ll leave the door unlocked. Sleep soon, ok?”
She stopped at the doorway, turned her face halfway and spoke with a finger touching her lips.
“I wasn’t being sincere.”
Rene knew he would sleep in this quarter every night until they left for Sunpu.
Author: Minh Vu