Part 33: The Next Alliance – Chapter 5

Suruga, Spring 1546

Rene remembered every nuances and minutes of the night before, down to the flavors and the sensations that he had fleetingly visited. It had been the first for him, and he secretly wished that it would never be the last. Morning had come, but last night remained.

“My lord, you seemed unwell today. Did you stay up late again? Would you like some tea?”

“It’s ok, Inagi. You are not my personal servant but a court retainer, need I remind you of that? And it’s not ‘my lord’. It’s Shinji.”

“Yes…Shinji.”

Rene smiled at the confused peer sitting next to him in the castle quarter. He felt wrong thinking of Inagi as anything less than an equal, given the time they had been together. It put Rene at ease to have a friend here, especially after last night.

“James, are you there?”

“Yeah. Inagi is there again, isn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

Yet, no matter how close Inagi was to him, Rene could never replace anyone with James, especially in this kind of matter; thus, the need to call him at this hour over the earphone.

“I really don’t like the fact you’re speaking in front of an AI.”

“Consider it an experiment. Besides, I checked out. He is secured.”

One of the uncanny wonders of this world was the fact that the native born, the Japanese people of the land, which Rene referred to as Artificial Intelligence, were programmed like machines. Granted, these people were highly sophisticated machines, behaving like a biologically born ‘human’ like Rene. Yet, they would temporarily shut down, ceased to live, if they encountered something beyond the historical settings in which they lived. Simply put, they would freeze like statues for five seconds, regardless of any interactions, if they saw or heard anachronism. The timer would reset every time they encountered a new anachronism. Still, there was a way around it, and Rene had been researching.

“Anyway, what’s the sit rep?”

“Miki visited me last night. She, eh, seduced me, had my first kiss, and left the Oda economic documents at my place.”

James went silent for a moment.

“Ignoring the part about her, what are those documents?”

“Game sheets, the kind that automatically updates the information and accurately documents the details of the world. These sheets provide the intel on your clan economy, but just the overview. I can only see how your clan is doing with these sheets, not actually manage or control it.”

“How deep is this overview?”

“Clan income, fiefs income, minor clans income, sources of incomes, trade amount, kinds of trade goods, trade partners, expenditures including military upkeep and construction cost, and your household expense. I have names, incomes in koku and in ryu, but no details of the army composition and the infrastructure.”

“Before I go on, what is fief and what is ryu?”

“Fief is a land unit. Historically, a feudal lord controls a fief, a piece of land which usually includes his personal estate and the surrounding farmland where he holds over the peasants. Ryu is the currency.”

“Wait, I thought koku is the currency?”

“Well, it’s not. By definition, koku is a volume unit, determined by the amount of rice a man needs to survive for one year. A clan income, determined by how many fiefs the clan holds, is measured in koku because in this historical time, coins aren’t exactly lying around, so they pay soldiers with rice instead. So it’s like gold. The more gold you have, the more money you can stock up. Ryu is the money. It is used in trading and dealing with merchants, but it’s for small deal, especially in rice and foodstuff trade, the main trade in this time. Do you follow so far?”

“Quite, enough to go on. What can you do with these sheets, and what do you think is her purpose giving you this?”

“Firstly, nothing, I guess. As said, I can’t actually make any orders with these sheets. They just update the information on their own, but beyond that, nothing. I can read these sheets and understand what you are doing with the clan, but that’s it. Maybe I should have taken some finance classes. Secondly, I don’t know. I don’t quite get what she wants with me in general.”

“In general?”

“We rarely speak with each other, you know. We don’t have that kind of long and clear conversation where we discuss plans and the likes. My fault on that actually, most of the time I was avoiding her.”

“Well then, why don’t you ask her?”

“She left, might be for good. She erased her name from all of the documents stored in this castle. I have already sent for the Arima clan, but I’m sure it would be for nothing.”

Rene uttered a laugh carrying more disappointment than joy. Miki made a bargain with the Arima clan, a human and AI minor clan that lived peacefully in the Tokugawa domain, Mikawa province. She would become the broker to strike a deal between the clan and Rene, making sure both parties gained a mutual understanding. What she gained in return, he knew not. She made clear that the deal had been honored a while ago, and the clan agreed. He instantly realized she might no longer had a reason to see him.

“Are you alright?”

“What’s with the sudden question?”

James hesitated.

“I mean, you’re in love with her, right? Are you alright with her leaving like this?”

“For now, I’m fine… I guess. Last night was… she was… rather charming. And seductive. But it had not been the first time she tried something like that. She is a spy, and I can’t read her. I don’t know her goals, her courses of action, her allies and enemies. That is a fact, a dangerous one. So, for now, I’ll content to this affection I have for her. Maybe it’s best that she keeps doing as she pleases.”

“Another crush, eh? Even in this world, you can’t escape the single life.”

“Shut up.”

James burst out laughing on the other side. Between the two of them, Rene had been the lesser playboy. He grinned at the accusation of James stealing all his luck with the ladies. Even the insane killer of Owari wanted to get in bed with James.

“Alright, back to the serious stuff, mate.”

“Yeah, ok. Do you have the sheets with you now?”

“No, I hid them. I’m in the castle right now. Inagi is here, remember?”

“That slips my mind. What do you think?”

Rene pondered for a moment.

“Do you want me to return them?”

“Do you want to return them?”

“There’s no point in me keeping them in Suruga. I can’t use them in any ways, so that means I will only safeguard them. And we both know I lack the resources and the diligence to do that. There’s also the potential risk of Hidenaga takingz advantage of the fact I’m holding them. There are just so many variables.”

“I think otherwise. The way I see it, Owari is not safe anymore. You know I don’t fiddle that much with the economy, that’s why I don’t bring those documents along. And then there’s Miki. She must have known something and planned something. Either she wants to hurt me or help you. Either case, she has shown a part of her plan.”

“Are you suggesting I keep them here?”

“Do you want to see your sweetheart again?”

“Please don’t.”

Rene paused while James laughed proudly of his jab again.

“So, you’re suggesting we take this bait and go to see how far she has planned?”

“Correct. What do you think?”

“Well, ok… Let’s do that. I’d love to see her again.”

“Screw you, this is serious business.”

“I’m only joking.” Rene grinned then continued. “So that’s all on my end. How’s yours?”

“Just met the Kiso daimyo the other day. I’m moving to the Kiso castle, will settle down and manage things while waiting for the Kiso army to move to North Shinano.”

“Slow period?”

“I fish for dinner yesterday, mate. It was freaking boring and tedious, but I have no other things to do. I’m stuck with the main army now, marching them to the castle. This deal with Seraph is definitely safer and less costly than a war, but damn it, this is too easy and too dull….”

Rene laughed and listened to his friend’s rant. Soon enough, he would come to expect James’ story with Midori, while watching the statue of Inagi froze in a student pose.

 

 

Time went by quickly, mostly because Rene buried himself in minor labor tasks, indulging himself so that he forgot that Miki’s leaving. It had not been her first, but he had come to believe this would be her last, and so the need to forget it. At first, he tried his luck with the economic department where he worked with the Arima human players to manage the clan’s treasury and deal with the Hojo question. But since the taskforce in Hojo hadn’t return report, not that Rene knew of, and the clan had been running smoothly, he had no business fooling around with old men doing old men things, such as archiving. Not that he didn’t try. They just shunned him away to talk about their families. After that, he took solace in learning the language and sparring with the guards, day in day out, until Hidenaga summoned him one fine evening.

“You called?”

“Shuu was killed.”

Hidenaga called him not to the usual reading room but instead to a guest room overlooking the south courtyard. He didn’t have any candle in the room, leaving only the window open for some moonlight.

“Shuu?”

“Shuu Yasanuga, chief of staff of sort in the intelligence department. He spearheaded the taskforce in Hojo, killed by bandits. The second in command there was smart enough to keep up the play, so the taskforce remained safe.”

“Bandits?”

“Somewhere on the trade routes. Words on the street had that a group of bandit or more selectively targeted portions of roads connecting Suruga all they way to Musashi and Hitachi. He didn’t know and tried to send messenger back the usual way. The first two got killed. He tried the third time and only made it to the border. We picked him up this morning by the outpost, covered in blood.”

Hidenaga paused and gripped his empty teacup. It must have been hard for him to lose a close man.

“Are you alright?”

“Don’t bother. We need countermeasure for this.”

“Countermeasure?”

“Besides him getting killed, there are other matters. The taskforce isn’t getting the job done. Their intel is worthless, and they suffered casualties already. He is a fool to attempt that useless deliver thrice for something useless. Also, I want to make sure a bunch of AI won’t be easily detected by the Hojo’s intelligence network. There are contingencies that only a human can deal with.”

“You mean?”

“Can you go?”

Rene looked around, trying to find for himself a teapot and an empty cup.

“Give me the details.”

“So you’re in?”

“Details first. It makes sense that I go, but I want to consider the situation for a possible alternative.”

He smashed the cup while finishing the sentence. Hidenaga gestured him to stop, poured him a cup, then fetched a stack of papers.

“Firstly, the detail. The taskforce had eleven men, now reduced to eight. Six of them are well-trained samurais, in charge of security. The remaining two are court retainers. They definitely had the samurai blood, but they can’t hold a damn sword. They’re in charge of the dealing and sniffing. Next, the cover. They played two families from a minor clan’s fief, the Ii clan of the Totomi province. One of the families is direct descendent of the clan, the other a traditional servant family. Due to the Okazaki siege, the Ii clan suffered from bankruptcy and must sought trading as a way to strengthen its position. The samurai family is escorting the servant to make a business in Hojo, buying rice and bringing them back home. They have settled in a house in Edo, the castle town of Musashi, connected with the Tokugawa merchant guild. Here are the names and their respective roles in the families. The sheet below that details their abilities and roles in the espionage.”

Rene flipped over the profiles while Hidenaga was sipping his tea, then spit it over the window.

“Tea’s not good?”

“Need to sleep tonight. Any question so far?”

“Yeah, aren’t six samurais too much for an espionage?”

“Well, Shuu got killed by bandits, figured it was an appropriate number, for both technical reasons and the cover.”

“No further question. Continue?”

“Ok, onto his report. The castle towns are the central hub for trading and business. Except for a few chain stores about which you can read in page six, all of the merchants and businesses are located in the towns, especially Musashi, Shimosa, and Hitachi. Sagami remained a military garrison and training grounds. We have no intel of Kazusa and Izu province, mostly because there was no dealing between the centers and these provinces. That’s the general. Hold on. Alright, here are the reports on the security and internal clan repression. This stack here is the report on businesses and leading merchants in Musashi province.”

Rene skimmed through the papers while listening to Hidenaga. Since the Hojo stopped its expansion, leaving Shimotsuke out of the way, both Rene and James had been wondering how the clan could stabilize internally, quelling the resistance to invaders trait that prompted the local people to rise against the new lords. Here lied the answer, it couldn’t. The countryside witnessed various reports of military control, presence of a standing garrison to patrol the roads and villages. That didn’t stop the jizamurai, individual lords with estate but even less power than a minor clan, to band together and lay waste to the rural area, challenging the control of the new clan. However, the urban area, attracting the mass population, saw another story. Trade boomed in various kinds and forms, mostly in foodstuff and farming equipment, also decorations and ornaments for the wealthier. Services also came into being, although in less details. The industry of service was indeed foreign to the AI. These improvement helped satisfied the thirst for resistance, calming the population, although incidents of urban discontent against the rulers existed.

“This is quite some good intel, don’t you think? They even have names of traders and merchants in here.”

“Yeah, for what? We are aiming for the grand scheme here. These are just pieces of a puzzle. Can you tell what the Hojo are planning with these?”

Rene stared at the papers without replying. He had had speculations, and these pieces, while valuable, weren’t the decisive pieces to answer. In fact, he knew he didn’t have the confidence to recognize the decisive pieces he sought, even if they were in front of him.

“Alright, I’ll go. What’s the detail for that?”

“Just to keep up the cover, you’ll be Ii Shinji. There is a merchant convoy leaving for Musashi in three days, I’ll get two men with you. I’ll write the procedures and a letter to the second in command. Pack up light, and make sure you get a stand in while you’re away. I like that Inagi kid.”

Rene laughed at the last comment. Hidenaga offered a soft smile in return while scribing on top of the reports.

“Also, bring this back with you and return tomorrow. I’ll let you have the reports for studying once you pass this test.”

“What’s test is this?”

“A safety measure, in case you need to kill yourself to escape captivity.”

Hidenaga spoke with an endearing smile, chilling Rene to the bone.

 

Musashi, Summer 1546

Rene hadn’t walked in the shoes of a common man for too long. The last time he had, he was a mere soldier stationing at the Suruga and Sagami border through which he passed a week earlier. Under the summer heat, he realized how he had taken for granted the privilege of a clan master, having an extra gulp of water and a shade above his head. And a cute girl serving me tea. The sore sight on the road didn’t help ease his discomfort. Except for the towns near the border, where they made a living comforting the merchants who were held up waiting for a trade permission, he saw the same destitute landscape everywhere. The castle town of Odawara, the administration center of Sagami province, was a military garrison and training camp because of the smithing specialty, providing good equipment for the troops. As such, there was little trading and livelihood, even when Rene visited the town center. The people stuck to minding their business, usually farming and selling trinkets on the emptied streets. The rural villages were worse. The population was small and thinned out. The people worked hard on meagre soils, unable to make a living so that they could look up and stare at the travelling crowd.

The crowd on the roads was probably the only highlight of the trip. A lot more bands of people traveled on the roads passing towns and villages here in Hojo domain than they were in his own land. They were all sorts and kinds, artisans, performers, trinket sellers, storytellers, even a few monks and scholars. But most of all, they were merchants, travelling from and to Musashi and other castle towns that matched the report. They carried with them mostly foodstuff, with the occasional raw materials and fine decors for the rich. Rene managed to talk with a few of them, mostly old folks and chattering men who could go on forever about their successful businesses. I wonder if she likes listening to stories.

However, the destination, Musashi, had the highest awe of them all. This province, which James said would become Tokyo, housed the Edo castle, a large and tall complex that stood as a symbol of his clan rule in history. Not my clan, the Tokugawa. Hell if I can pull off such success. As grand and impressive as the castle, the castle town surrounding it had its fair share of awe-inspiration. Unlike other castle towns which were usually located a distance away from the central castle, this castle town grew out of the castle, expanded in size while concentrated the population, becoming urbanized in its historical potential. It should be called a city, larger than Washington was in size and probably housing more people as well. It was always lively and bursting with crowds traversing the narrow streets with all sorts of people doing all kinds of thing, bearing resemblance to a New York City’s Times Square with less light. It would be so much fun if we were to go here for a holiday. Upon his observation, Rene could clearly tell this was the work of a human player.

The first day they arrived, Rene and his two companions settled down in the house in the outskirt district. The taskforce scattered into two locations. Half of the samurais stayed in the poorer district, blending in with the beggars and the slum to hide themselves while gathering words on the street. The rest acted as the trader, living deeper inside the town, in a district customized for merchants and traders only. Right now, Rene and the duo would stay in an inn, waiting for clearance from the taskforce before joining them.

When they arrived, it was in the afternoon. His companions had already set out to meet up with the insiders, while he settled down for a rest. They didn’t return until Rene had prepared dinner for them all.

“Eat up. I hope these are not too bad.”

“Oh, you’re too humble, my lord.”

Although it was just rice ball with a bit of sauce, the samurais didn’t complain about the simplicity. They were quite frugal and probably used to playing the peasants. Between the two of them, Muragawa Satoshi was downright stingy. Despite his status as a samurai, he ate like a peasant, if it saved him the coins. Sena Takanashi had a better taste in his meal, but he was also more diligent. He could survive with less for longer than Muragawa could.

“These are quite good, my lord. You did pick up the skill from the old man the other day.” Sena offered his compliment.

“Hiroshi wasn’t it? I missed the old man already. His onigiri could really sell in my village.” Muragawa added without finishing the food in his mouth. Rene just smiled and nodded in agreement.

“So what’s the word with Hijikata?” Rene asked after the quick dinner while Muragawa doing the cleaning. Hijikata Uchitane was the second in command currently leading the taskforce. During his time here, Rene would act independently from the taskforce, gathering information on his own with the conditional help from the taskforce.

“Nothing unusual at the moment, my lord. As you can see on this map, these are the locations of guard posts, town garrisons, and personal lords’ estates. By the order of the clan, the minor lords are required to stay in the town with their two hundred men acting as garrison. And these here are merchant guilds and craft guilds. Truthfully, we don’t know much about this, so these are all we could gather.” Sena slid out on the open floor a sheet of paper.

“Quite a lot of guard posts in the town, don’t you think? What is this red line around this district?”

“My lord, Hijikata said it was a checkpoint for the district. Not just this one, any district with a meetinghouse has this checkpoint on every road leading to it. The line marks the boundary of the district. Incidentally, these districts only have three streets connecting them with others, making the checkpoints rather effective.”

Rene stared at the map full of patches of color, separated by red lines. He couldn’t help but admire the map drawer, being able to map down such complicated network of streets and buildings. No way in hell the contemporary Japanese knew of this urban planning.

“Why a meetinghouse?”

“Apparently, the clan requires bimonthly meeting for all influential merchants and traders that have a permanent register in the town. These meetings would take place in a meetinghouse, and recently they were sabotaged. The culprit is unknown.”

“Permanent register?”

“Any merchant affiliated with a merchant guild or a trading party that trades a specific amount or more. Also, any merchant that stays and acts as a broker for long distance trade. Hijikata said so.”

“What is the purpose of these meetings?”

“All kinds of reasons and purposes, my lord. Sometimes, the clan makes an announcement. Sometimes, all gathered to discuss trade.”

Rene pondered for a moment. He had never figured the economy was this active and complicated in this historical time, not Japan. Medieval Europe would be a more appropriate setting, having developed trade over hundred of years instead of farming like Asia.

“My lord, he said that there is a meeting tonight. He asked if you would like to participate.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“We…both thought it was of no importance. We still have an hour before the meeting. Hijikata said he can only take you there. We should make for his place first so that he could explain in details.”

“Very well then, we proceed as such.”

Half an hour later, Sena accompanied Rene to the house where Hijikata Uchitane and his four men group stayed. After some explanation, Hijikata took Rene to the meetinghouse whereas Sena left to regroup with Muragawa. As the cover, Hijikata played the uncle while Rene, the apprentice cousin from the destitute land. The two retainers played the Ii households, who would stay behind at the house and set up shop. In daytime, they sold trinkets from their hometown and stocked up on rice as the front.

The meetinghouse was a two-story building made out of wood. From the outside, it didn’t seem too big. Yet, once inside, Rene felt overwhelmed by the space it provided. The ground floor was arranged like the inside of a church, with cushions replacing chairs, ordered in straight rows behind a small table. There was no second floor, but rather from the ground floor rose an elevated platform for addition seating like that in an opera house. All of the seats faced one side of the building, where situated a platform and a wall, separating the main room with the back of the house. This arrangement reminded Rene of a church. This is no way a work of one man. That or the Hojo player must be some sort of a city mayor in the old world.

Upon entering the house, the two of them must register on a catalog book, after which the house servant showed them their seats. The house gradually got filled up by merchants after they settled down. The quiet place became noisy quickly as people arrived.

“Uncle, how can I sit on the platform like them?” With an innocent voice, Rene acted his role.

“All of the seats are decided by the master clan, child. I don’t know how, but it seems you must earn the good favor of the clan.”

Rene nodded and took his time to observe the merchants. Soon enough, a man appeared on the stage, and everyone died down.

“Fellow merchants, today we gather to continue discussing two matters, the practice of several merchants in our district and the progress of our competition with Hitachi and Shimosa. First of all, a quick announcement from our lord. The introductory tax cut for all new businesses will be abolished starting next month. Our lord has deemed that the market is growing as fast as ever, and should be slowed down for a while.”

Chatters began to rise among the crowd. Most of them were cheers and appreciation of the announcement. But they all quickly died down due to the announcer on the stage.

“Ok, firstly, updates on the competition. Shimosa is left far behind by five thousand kokus. They will face repercussion from our lord and the punishment will come to either us or Hitachi. Their merchant number will be reduced, so I suggest you all start aiming for Hitachi for some extra profit.”

The crowd erupted once again, loudly cheered and laughed, giving the announcer a hard time to regain control.

“Uncle, what is this competition?” Rene asked Hijikata.

“It starts out as a friendly rivalry between all the castle towns with merchant guilds, aiming to make the most profit for their home guild. Then the Hojo implemented a fixed tax rate on the profit, making that the deciding measurement for this competition. They also tip the competition by rules and laws, like this reduction of merchants for the losing town.” He answered with a quiet voice, trying to hide it under the white noise.

“Alright, settle down, settle down. That said, we’re just eight hundred kokus ahead of Hitachi. We will need to push harder if we want to maintain in the top position. The loss of introductory tax cut will prevent new merchants, so I suggest you all work together to increase the profit.”

“The Junbe house never works together.”

“Yeah, so does the Hamura.”

The whole room burst out a cry, yet this time it wasn’t a joyful one. Everyone around Rene was shouting names and decrying those names. Hijikata lowered his head and whispered to Rene.

“From what I heard, some merchants had their secret recipes and sources. They monopolize their sources and make a huge profit out of that. Most of the people here hate them, either because they can’t compete or because they don’t understand the selling of those people.”

“What are they selling then?”

“Finely crafted paper, exotic woodwork, mostly things for the lords. The people who hate them sell nothing but foodstuff.”

Rene nodded and glanced at the people in the room. Since the beginning, he had noticed a nuance in the outfit of merchants. The higher they sat, the better they wore, probably to reflect their successful status. Yet, some individual merchants on the highest spot wore similar to those in the lowest. Incidentally, they didn’t join the shouting but instead kept a stern glare on the announcer, who was looking increasingly confused and nervous. The shouting went on, became more disarray and uncontrollable, despite the vain effort of the man on stage.

Eventually, it happened. The announcer made a gesture to the backroom, calling another man to the stage who then shouted one single word.

“Silence.”

In English.

To Rene’s amazement, the whole room went silent in an instant. For that instant, he gladded he had this small body and sat it in the corner among tall men. He removed his earphone, hid it under his cushion, then assumed a sitting pose staring at the stage. Ten seconds. The man uttered another English word, as loud as he could. The room maintained its silence. It felt surreal.

Not until he spoke his fourth word that someone spoke up.

“What is it this time?”

“The daimyo is angry that you all can’t even control this quarrel.”

“Control? I’m not wasting any more money calming this crowd down. It’s hard enough to make a living, selling stuff to the stubborn mass or the arrogant rich.”

A few voiced their agreement. Rene wouldn’t dare shift his sight, so instead he counted the number of voice.

“But he is angry already. He removes the tax cut to warn you, to control the friction between you and the AI merchants before you all expanding into new businesses. Thing is already bad in Sagami.”

“What about Sagami, it’s just a barrack. It has nothing to do with us.”

“There are bandits there. They are disrupting his plan. I don’t want to incur his wraith.”

The announcer’s voice was breaking.

“What do you suggest then? How do we put this crowd at ease? We need to reach our own quotas so we cannot spend anymore buying them off.”

“Then do something. You all have the money, right? Hire someone to take them out, scare them off, get them off our cases.”

People started shouting their disagreement. Among those voices, Rene heard a cry. The announcer was trembling. He couldn’t speak calmly anymore.

“Please, I don’t want to anger him.”

“We too can be put in jail. You’re on your own.”

They kept exchanging their shouts until the other man on stage yelled.

“Time is up. You all have ten seconds.”

Rene heard him shuffling away, and soon enough the room erupted in shouting again. The human crowd died down, sparing the space for the AI merchants to do the shouting. Only Rene noticed the face of the only man on the stage, filled with despair and desperate and remained so until the end of this pointless meeting. He wasn’t alone though, Rene felt he too was wearing the same face. He was too scared to put on his earphone again and content to hearing all the Japanese jargons until every human players left the room.

I really wish she could be here. I suck at this.

*****************************************************

Author: Minh vu

 

 

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