Somewhere between Shinano and Owari, Spring 1546
Finally, remember to remind Nobunaga to keep an eye on them. He needs to learn about what we know before he comes of age.
I wish I could see you now.
He signed and sealed the letter in a bamboo stick. The night was dark and quiet. The only sound he could hear was the cuckoo from the courier sitting on his shoulder. He tied the stick to its leg, then threw the small creature into the air. The flapping wings seemed to disturb the serenity for a moment, before everything sunk into its previous patterns. There was no wind tonight, and the crickets were too silent. Or so he thought.
About a week ago, whenever James and his death squads conducted espionage raids, they always found Kiso camps empty from top to bottom. At first, James suspected the enemies had moved to a new hideout, however, the reports he received in the region indicated no action from the Kiso. It was as if the whole network disappeared into thin air within no more than a few days. He came up with two possible scenarios for this incident: either James and his companies had dealt enough damage to Kiso’s network that they had to pull out his remaining spies to consolidate the defense in Iida Castle, or somehow the Kiso’s daimyo had sense something amiss so he had to retracted his men to protect the provincial capital.
Last night, before leaving another empty camp, James found a note written in English pinned at the window of the main meeting room, with a small Kiso emblem in the corner. James was suspicious about the offer in the note, yet if it was true, it could save him a tone of trouble, and also man power. He had spent a good long time thinking and discussing this matter with Rene, yet he couldn’t make up his mind. Maybe he could give Kiso daimyo’s a try, but if he had to do this, it would be on James’ own terms.
“M’lord, other Ryukage squads are in position. We’re ready to depart.”
“Good.” He picked up his swords and followed Ishimaru into the thick black forest. He had ordered other squads to depart earlier to protect their perimeter. To James’ memory, there were worse things than a compromised secret meeting location.
The journey through the forest was quiet as they were all paying attention to their surroundings. The air was light and cool, yet so thick with pressure that made all of them feel unease. The forest felt like a sleeping leviathan, who would wake up and devour them all at any moment.
The meeting site was a vast empty space at the foot of a nearby mountain. From the depth of the northern heights to the south side of the site, a small stream running between the rocks, creating a funny sound resounding in the air. The moon shone over the ground with its silvery light, and at the same time casted a huge shadow beneath the tree ranges surrounding the area. That was what he wanted, wasn’t it?
In the middle of the site, James saw a middle-aged man in his dark grey robe waiting for him with three other armored samurais. The man looked calmed and steady as he steered his gazed towards James and his entourage. From the look, there was nothing special about him, yet his posture gave James a slight sense of respect for the man.
James and his company trod their horses opposite from the other negotiator across the field. When they were around fifty meters away, James signaled his bodyguards to stop as he stepped forwards. His counterpart mirrored the action and they met at the middle of the field.
“Lord Oda,” the man’s voice was low and steady as he saluted the negotiator.
“Lord Kiso, shall we drop the farce? Both our men are out of hearing range.”
“You brought quite an entourage to deal with my four-men-group.” He smiled, with one hand caressing his horse neck.
“I have other concern, lord Kiso. As you’ve been living in this world longer than I do, you might know the murderous story of Owari?” James’ voice was thick, but enough to wipe out the smile on the other man’s face for a split second.
“I thought that was only a myth. You really buy into those late night stories, lord Oda?”
“I wouldn’t if it didn’t take an eye from me,” James laughed as he saw a spark of surprise in his counterpart’s expression. James briefly lifted the eye piece to show the other man his wound. The man’s horse seemed to be restless as James was talking. “A cut right across my face told me how real it was. Anyway, you can call me James. Would you tell me your name and the reason you asked for this meeting?”
“I like it that you are very straight forward. For the name, you can call me Seraph. And for the meeting, let me tell you a story first,” the man smiled again and looked at James, now that he had managed to calm his stallion down. As the Oda lord didn’t raise any objection, he continued.
“So about a month ago, I started to receive reports about missing agents and destroyed hideouts. It was the kind of stories that make you question yourself what the hell was happening. The number and the intensity of those reports were so ridiculous that I knew right off the bat that those are results of espionage actions, even though all of those incidents were disguised. But because the regional espionage network was crippled, all those thoughts were just speculations and gut feelings. When I received news from some new spies I sent to North Shinano that the Takeda armies were up there, so I guess they were behind these camp raids. But then, a few days later, my field agents in Kai sent me a bird about the presence of Tokugawa armies in Suruga Province. That news caught me off guard, because it was just a year into the game, and there was no possible way the Tokugawa could reach there that fast with the Oda on their heels. I was quite suspicious that the Oda could also planning an invasion. When I saw you marching here earlier, I was impressed with your conquering speed. Right in year two and you’re threatening South Shinano already.” Seraph’s face seemed to be suck inside the memories as he retold them. His hands playing with the reigns occasionally between the words, but never lasted more than a few seconds.
“What do you want to imply?”
“I can give you an offer which will be very useful for your future conflict with the Takeda.” The man dropped his smiles away, making him older, and colder.
“What’s the catch? Leaving you in charge of South Shinano, or a spot on my council?” This time, it was James’ turn to return the courtesy. He faked an innocent grin to suppress the smirk inside his belly as he thought he’d managed to read the situation.
“A spot on your council, of course, if you’re capable of winning this whole thing.”
“What is your offer? I’m listening.” James looked at Seraph with his cold dark eyes as if he wanted to pierce through the mind of the proponent.
“I have fifteen thousand men garrison Iida castle at this moment.” He released his tight grasp on the stallion’s reign and started using his hands to elaborate. “To be frank, I’m not the best at defending, so with that much men I cannot fend off both the Oda and Takeda armies. My best bet is that I can finish off one and fell to the hand of the other. And that’s the best case scenario for me. With that in mind, I either try to fight, die in vain and reset, or I can make a pact with one of the two and serve as your retainer. If you let me join your cabinet, I can order the Kiso army heading up north to the border with the Takeda, and sacrifice them to weaken the Takeda’s army before you strike.”
“And what is your condition?”
“When you take South Shinano, I hope you will treat my current retainers with dignity. Maybe to you they were just AI, but to me, having such a long time in here, they are the closest things to human I’ve ever known.”
“That’s a sensible condition. But why do I need you though?” Curiosity echoed in his voice, yet still strangely calm, as if he already knew the answer. Eventually, it was just a cat and mouse game. No more. No less.
“I live here long enough to put values in my councils. I live in this region long enough to know about all its lores and secrets. And I live here long enough to be proud of my cavalry specialty. I may not be good in defense, but I can lead your cavalry divisions and aid you greatly in your campaigns.”
James didn’t respond for a while but stared at the other man for a while. The Kiso’s daimyo didn’t evade but instead looked straight into his counterpart’s piercing eyes.
“What if I decline your offer and form an alliance with the Takeda?” James gently grabbed his leather reign and squeezed it enough to make his horse stand on two feet for a brief moment.
“A kingdom cannot have two kings.” The other man smiled in respond. “Or at least that is my belief.”
“Very well Seraph. I accept your offer. I hope we will unite Japan and achieve victory together.”
“Thank you, James. I promise you, from this day on, I will fight beside you for your cause, or die trying.”
Two men rode to each other, held each other’s hand firmly, and nod in agreement of their new formed friendship.
“So, for the specifics of your plan, shall we discuss now?”
“Of course,” the two daimyos got off their horses and Seraph signaled his men to bring the local map. “Here is Iida castle, and right now my army is stationing in there. Tomorrow morning, I will dispatch all of them to North Shinano and send spy forward to scout the area. The army’s mission will be destroying the nearest Takeda’s division before disbanding. After I destroy the Takeda’s army, you can go in and take both Iida castle and South Shinano.”
“That’s a good plan. I will put my men on stand-by.” James nodded in agreement. “Once I take South Shinano, I will officially admit you into my court and all your retainers who want to serve me.”
“That sounds sensible. I’ll head back to the castle if you have no other need of me. Nobody but these four men know I’m not in Iida.”
“We’re good for now. If there’s any news, I’ll send a bird for you,” James nodded and headed back on his horse. “It’s good knowing you, Seraph. I will see you soon.”
Seraph slightly bowed, then turned his horse into the vast darkness of the forest. James turned around and nodded as a signal for his hidden squads. This deal was too good to be true. His men already received their order before they left for the meeting earlier. James wanted to keep an eye on this guy until he was sure that this deal was not a farce.
“Do you think what he said was honest, m’lord?” Midori asked him when they were back at the camp.
“I’m not sure, but we will soon know. Do we have any news from the main army?”
“They are two weeks from our position, and a day away from the provincial border.”
“Right on schedule,” James couldn’t hide a smirk from his face. He sat down to the table and scribed a quick note before handing it to Midori. “Give this to Kankata and tell him to deliver this message to Lord Hatake Tsubasa and Aizu Kanetada. I’ll take some rest first. It’s been a long day.”
“Yes m’lord. I’ll be back as soon as I’m done,” Midori slightly bowed and left a room in a quick dash, leaving James alone in his small chamber at the camp.
“What a lovely mistress you have there,” James heard a giggled coming from his bed. “You have my replacement that fast?”
“Holy s…” James was startled as he turned around. His katana was half way drawn until he remembered the unique voice. “Damn you. You got the wrong person.”
“You really don’t have a sense of humor at all,” she sat up and lit the candle by the bed. She didn’t change much. Her hair was just as red as it was in James’ memory. And her face was still beautiful, just not as murderous.
“My humor was gone with my other eye,” James scoffed. “What’s your business here?”
“I’m visiting a friend, of course, foolish boy.”
“Watch your tongue, little girl. Who’s that unlucky bastard?”
“You see, sometimes my mind doesn’t work properly, but it seems yours are having an even bigger than mine.” She kept giggling as she pulled the blanket up her chin. “Come here, handsome. I’ll help you clear your mind.”
“No thank you. I’m not coming so that you can cut my head off.” James took a deep breath to gain control on his nerve. It took him quite some strength to not call for his men right the moment he saw her. For some reason, he didn’t want to believe she was here to kill him. “So be quick and state your business, or I’ll call my men in.”
“Don’t believe that you can handle me on your own, do you? Smart boy, but I’d rather be with you alone.” She got off the bed and slowly approached James. Her sword was sheathed, dangling by her hip. She was wearing the black attire just like the last time they met. “I’m here to see you, idiot.”
“What do you want from me then? Become my mistress?” James smiled and sheathed his sword, letingt it hang by his side. “That’s not impossible if you ask me nicely.”
“Someone must have hit your head really hard.” She walked by the window and looked at James for a moment before pushing them out, ushered the night wind in blowing off the candles. “But that’s it for now. We’ll meet again soon. My name is Lillia, if you insist.”
Just as sudden as she appeared, she vanished beyond James’ eyesight, leaving him stunned for another moment, before he snapped back and fell asleep. That night, he saw her again in his dream, with her glowing red hair and murderous look in her eyes. And somehow, he found that beautiful.
Author: Dat Le