Suruga province, Spring 1546
Ever since they got back from the library, Miki had disappeared from the castle. Before she left, she served Rene tea one afternoon, briefly mentioned that she trusted him and would be going on a trip. It didn’t mean much to Rene anyway, her presence did. After all, with her gone, he could focus on working and remembering the faces and names of people in the castle. He had already started to forget what her face looked like, how her hair smelled like crisp hazelnut in the morning, fluttered in the breeze, how her skin felt, soft and tender like when he touched old parchments. He could really use some brain capacity on other serious stuffs.
Some weeks had passed. Rene spent more time in his little cottage than in the castle. Under his authority, he had assembled his own cabinet consisted of four Arima human players and some AI vassal retainers. It had served as his group of experts on financial and economic matter. If anything, it was his only productive thing for the time being. Within the cabinet, the human players learned from the AI how this world worked, and in return the AI studied the new concepts the humans had brought here. Even Rene managed to learn a thing or two from these four, three of which had married a local lady, two of which were expecting a child. So were the AI, all married. Rene was the youngest, never even “tasted women”, according to the words of one AI retainer.
Maybe I should just call them old folks instead of AI.
But even then, without information of Hojo, they couldn’t do anything but improving their own clan economy. Such a task was simple. With the foundation laid out, everything else was paperwork. Farmers farmed, traders traded, everything went smoothly. The concern lied in the Hojo domain. Specifically, their trade agreement and diplomatic sentiment.
“Economic espionage? No, not my JD.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
Rene sighed. He was sitting on the front porch at home, waiting for the sun to come. Taking the early night off made no difference, if anything it helped talking with Ataki easier.
“Have you brought this to Jim?”
“Hidenaga had already sent the first batch into Izu and Sagami, if you had a clue where they are. But I doubt they would make a difference, he was more into military than money matters.”
Rene poured himself a cup of tea.
“Anything interesting up north I should know?”
“Well, I’ll just give you what I told your friend. A clan named Mogami had taken Miyagi, blocking off the Date and Uesugi line. By the look of things, I assume you know these two are human clans, right?”
“Yeah, do go on.”
“Uesugi is in a bad mess right now, kid. Their only army numbers 25,000 but it is too much to feed. Their villagers were crying for help everywhere while the merchants fled south. I don’t know how they got into this mess in the first place and with the Date cut off, they could only trade with Hojo.”
“And I assume James knows this?”
“That guy did, but aside from the army, he doesn’t care.”
“So what’s next for you?”
“We’re going back. He told me at this rate Uesugi couldn’t hold. Making contact with them now might only mean we need to waste effort saving a dying patient. I like that anyway, Kake has been missing her brother.”
Rene almost choked on his drink.
“And how is Kake?”
“Fine. Good and beautiful. Tasted nice if you know what I mean.”
“Damn it Ataki, I told you not to…”
“She asked for it kiddo.” Rene heard laughter on the other side, which came to an abrupt stop. “Nah, just messing with you.”
“Something going on over there?”
Rene found himself exhaled of relief.
“She’s sleeping. Kid’s gotta worry if a fine girl like her is living in the quarter. Damn if I know how many horny guys want in on her.”
Rene forced a laugh and drank some tea.
“Never mind that, so you are going back now?”
“Yeah, but we will get side track a bit. Kake found out there is a restaurant chain in Hitachi and some jewelry stores in the coast. Said she wanted to take a look, maybe learn a thing or two to make a living so I’m taking her there first. Will that mess with your plan?”
“No not really. But what restaurant chain?”
“Something called “hotsu dogu”. Damn if I know what that is, but they serve sushi and some fried stuff in there. Their ramen tastes nice though, I thought I had enough of that shit my college year.”
“Ramen? Like instant noodles?”
“Yeah, aren’t you in college?”
A thought flashed through his mind.
“Hey, what else are they selling in Hojo?”
“Selling? Eh, clothes for peasants and the high class, paper, the real kind made from wood not these skin stuff, jewelry and pottery that Kake likes, farming equipment, even carts. Ah, also delivery services and transport if you count that. Yesterday I saw a Hojo trade convoy entered Fukushima. They stacked the carts together and pulled it with horses in the front. Don’t know how that works but surely it reminds me of trains.”
Rene put down his cup of tea.
“Does James know this?”
“I don’t think he’ll care.” Ataki laughed on the other side. But then he stopped. “But you cared then.”
“Yes, I do. This is some serious development. I guess I will have to ask you to stay in Hojo for a while. Keep me posted of their activities, whatever services they are selling. Establish a network there, find out about the Hojo’s trade routes, partners, trading guilds, even corporates and brand names, the more the better. I need a fuller picture of whatever they are doing.”
“Quite a tall order kid, but serves us good. Kake would love some time working for one of the guilds. But don’t expect regular reports, I haven’t made a contact since leaving the domain. It will take time.”
“I’m counting on you then.”
“Worry not kiddo. We’ll get going as soon as she wakes up.”
Rene hid his face away from the sudden ray of light. The sun had risen, began its journey above the tree line.
“Rough night last night? She usually wakes up before the sun does.”
“Can’t blame me, I haven’t had sex for…”
“Oh damn it shut your mouth.”
Laughter deafened his ear.
“Speaking of which, how’s the gal?”
Rene raised his head and looked at the tree line. The sun had revealed itself. But its spotlight had been stolen by the little pink and white petals slowly fluttered in the air. Spring had come. And the sakura was going.
Why isn’t it called sakura in English as well? Cherry sounds stupid.
“If you’re not hurried up, she might fall for someone else.”
That last one delivered too close for comfort.
With the information from Ataki, Hidenaga’s taskforce in Hojo had a better lead at what to look at, and the cabinet began its real work, dealing with the Hojo economic force. After a few days working, Rene eventually filed a report and brought that to Hidenaga. However, he kept the news about Uesugi hidden.
The two sat in the room alone. In Hidenaga understanding, the Arima human players didn’t exist, and Rene intended to keep it that way.
“This is some solid work. Good job. I know they were up to something. After all, their main army in plain sight was just mere distraction.”
“They have one full division in Musashi, not even hiding or training, just sitting around playing weekend soldiers. That’s the only threat we face, aside from the Takeda in Kai. The other division, I caught words that they are up north.”
Rene realized he had not played a general for too long. He smiled at the realization, then quickly turned out a stern face.
“We might need to look further into this. Three days ago, we caught wind of a Hojo trade ship sailing back to their province. The report just came in this morning. They were trading with the clans down south, Shimazu, Otomo, Mori, Amako, and Chosokabe. That’s four human clans. God knows how that Hojo guy did that.”
“Wait, how did you know about that trade ship?”
“What do you mean how? It was in our vision range.”
Rene imagined he must have looked as dumb as he was studying chemistry.
“Have you looked at the construction order last month? We have built a military dock already. That coupled with the upgraded criminal syndicate in Mikawa gave us naval espionage.”
Hidenaga burst out laughing having seen the dumbfounded Rene.
“I thought we have to research the technology “school of shinobi” first?”
“You have no clue how researching works here right?” Hidenaga walked to the drawers and returned with a sheet of paper, detailing the construction sites in the domain.
“We don’t have to research anymore. It is all up to our imagination and understanding. As long as we can provide a logical framework, everything will come into places. Like, since you established trade agreement with the Oda, your mentioning guilds has enabled us to build merchant guilds across the land, skipping over rice exchange and whatever the technology required. Do you get it? This is real world, don’t just stick to the game.”
Rene stared at the sheet without really looking. He felt funny, realizing someone had told him the same thing months ago.
“Ok, so what now?”
Rene handed back the sheet.
“Military wise, we just keep training. I’m figuring out a way to raise the troop’s experience like foreign veteran in the Fall of the Samurai expansion. Without James’s signal, we sit tight. Economic wise?”
“I’m thinking investing a little bit more into espionage, figuring out the Hojo’s vision and turning it against them. Maybe build a trade ship convoy and send them south, find out what the Hojo is doing there and settle some trade agreement while they’re at it.”
Rene paused, waiting for a frown Hidenaga.
“We’re doing fine financially, so I rather we don’t trade. It would give them vision and a route for the spies. I can fight armies, but trade wars, I have no clue.”
“Then no trade. Let’s agree on this course of action. I will talk to you if things develop.”
“Godspeed then, I’ll send a runner if I need.” Rene exited the room and began heading home.
He had had pieces of the puzzle. The Hojo clan had gathered some human players, ambitious and entrepreneurial. They definitely made use of their talents in the old world to liven up the state-own ancient economy such as ones in this world. The trade ship heading south, the unnecessary complicated trade agreement, they all pointed to the grand scheme the Hojo was planning. All that was left was to confirm his suspicion.
Rene thought about making a stop in the Arima quarter, giving them the course of action and coordinated the spies in Hojo. But he seconded that. Things could wait, and it was dusk already. Unless he was staying in the castle, the night life wasn’t exactly friendly to anyone. The town he would pass through died down early. Shops would close and people would head home at the first sound of crows hunting. After that, the muddied dirt road wasn’t exactly welcoming either, forcing him to crawl on all four at four at some points. If he got stuck on the road before nightfall, his trip back home could even have background music, courtesy of howling pack of wolves and all kinds of insects and animals he knew he feared. But tonight, like all nights before, he went home. The castle hadn’t been warm and cozy for him.
He walked the same path half an hour in the morning. But the loneliness slowed a man’s feet, as much as the darkness daunted one’s will to press on. By the time Rene arrived, the sun had set, leaving only a few squirt of orange on the dark navy canvass.
“You’re later than usual.”
Rene forgot he was panting. He looked up, stared at the figure sitting on the front porch.
Rene said without thinking. But the moment he realized and covered his mouth, Miki had followed his lead and replied warmly. She gestured him to join her on the porch. He sat on the other side of the entrance, across from the tea tray she had served.
“I finished making a cherry necklace while waiting for you. Should I make another one for you?”
She tilted her head to the side, leaning against the thin sliding door, and raised the necklace like a child showing her proud work. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Have you had dinner? I can cook something.”
“I made porridge already. I save a serving for you in the kitchen. No meat, no spices, no firewood, are you sure you can live here?”
Rene decided to forgo having dinner.
“Besides, the futon is broken, the walls have holes, the pots barely hold. I’m amazed you can live by yourself. Are you sure you can cook?”
“Most of the time I eat in the castle. Sometimes I buy snack from the town or bring leftover from the castle’s dining hall. But I can cook.” He uttered little defense with a grin.
“Then why do you move here anyway?” She pouted like a demanding child.
“Because of that.” Rene shook his head, pointed toward the forest.
Fireflies. Little chartreuse fireflies flashing and floating across the silhouette of the forest, now blackened without the light in the sky. He watched them with a bright smile, and even grinned wider when he heard Miki’s gasp.
She exclaimed, leaping from the porch at the little green dots. She crouched on the ground and stared at them, even extending her hands and trying to poke them like a child first saw 3D. She ran around in barefoot, her kimono flapped furiously, shying Rene away from looking times and times again. After a while, she returned by his side, donned her outfit and sat down gently.
“Please disregard whatever you just saw. That was uncommon of me.” Her tone and figured dignified, honed her image as an elegant lady. But Rene couldn’t help but laugh, her childish image being the culprit.
“Stop, you’re embarrassing me. Meanie.” She dropped the delicate image like a glass plate, nudged his arms and dragged on her words. He covered his mouth, but his grin remained. Eventually, he stopped, after her hitting and pouting.
“Also, because of you.”
They were sitting next to each other. His word caused her to turn, immediately greeted his sight. She was uncomfortably close.
“What do you mean?”
“You were too dear a sight for me to behold. Not to mention a dangerous person whose intention is unclear.” He looked away briefly.
“Aren’t you a good boy?” She drank another cup then rested on his embrace.
The night was cold and beautiful. So was she.
“Do you like me?”
Her kimono was thin and smooth. Too thin. Her body felt against his. Her back slender. Her hair smelled of sakura. She got some petals stuck on the right side of her hair. Charming.
“Do you love me?”
She put her hands behind her, blindly left them at his chest, her fingers walked north.
She put her hands in his palms. Like holding a petal.
Her fingers intertwined with his and raised it above the air, forming a small gap in front of his eyes.
He held her hands, covered it completely with his, and widen the gap, lowering her arms as close to the ground as he could without hurting her.
“How much is this much?”
She raised her leg, completely showed it as the kimono fell off. He laughed, focusing his eyes on her face. Dangerously close to the gap between the two pieces of her kimono, just below the neck.
“Enough to try my best for your best.”
“Even if it hurts you?”
She put down her legs, retracted her hands, then turned her whole body around and got on top of his legs. Close…. she is breathing into my belly.
“Even if it hurts me.”
She looked up, smiled, then began to undo his top.
Her slender fingers breached it wide open, moved it beneath and around his back, pulling him closer to her. Her mouth touched his bare skin, moving upward from the skinny chest, then the neck, then the Medusa eyes of her locked in on their preys, his. She bore her teeth, smiling, like a prey toying before the meal. Her hands moved like a snake, closer, closer, until they held his nape. She closed her eyes. Her mouth glaring at its delicious meal. But her lips, his bounty, was ripe for the taking.
Rene smelled sake in her breath.
She went in and kissed him. Pressing her body against his then wrestled him down on the ground.
Wet. Soft. I can’t see but feel the tip of her tongue, slashing and running amok. The sweet taste of it, the tender…. swallowing and choking on a snake hissing its poison…
She broke it off.
She lifted herself from above him, yet remained seated on top of him.
The smell of sake reeked, as if transferred from her body.
“You liked that I stopped, didn’t you?”
She removed his hands, which still clung onto her shoulders the moment ago, a bit tighter than he realized.
“When the man is seduced, his hands move on my back, smolder it, dominate it, like how my tongue does in his mouth.”
Rene lied there in silent.
“It was my first, so excuse my inexperience.”
“It was so much more than that, you little boy.” She laughed, then lied flat on his body, her head resting on the side, putting the petals on top.
She’s light. Her kimono sits loose. Her… they touch…
Too light. As if he felt nothing on top of him. And her breathing, slowed, filled with sake, abrupt.
“You really meant it, don’t you?”
“Nothing.” She said, then paused. “Please embrace me.”
He nodded, wrapped his arm around her back and put the other over her head. So small.
“I am being sincere. I’m sorry. For all that I have done.”
She whispered. He just lied there. His mind was probably still stuck running over the sensation she had given.
“You will need to access the Oda clan’s information. You will need to run its economy. I have brought a gift, stashed in your secret component. It appears I have wasted our night. Betray him or not, your call. But do what is needed.”
She spoke in a soft tone, almost monotone, as if a frozen ice cone dancing in the air.
“Pet me. Stroke my hair. Indulge me just a little more.”
Eternity might have passed, but he couldn’t careless.
“I have misjudged you.”
She sat up eventually, elegantly escaped his rough hands. Her eyes gazed upon him.
She descended again, shook her head a little and made a little sakura rain. Petals floated and landed on his face. The flower’s scent had long gone, but that of the sweet wine remained, tingling and twinkling in that small scene in front of his.
She kissed him.
A soft touch on the lips. A kiss on the petal. Your mouth is wine.
Her eyes was closed. Her hand was putting a curl of her long dark hair behind her ears. Her head tilted slightly. It was slow motion.
Rene lied there staring at her as if himself had become frozen. He watched as she donned her outfit, tightened the obi, and left through the front door.
She staggered there, where she left her last words.
“You really are a good boy. Forget me…”