Mune and his team arrived at the village of Bizen, which stood at the end of the westernmost branch of the Inland Sea. It stood in stark contrast to the village near Himeji Castle. Where that village relied on the bounty of fish from the sea, this village relied on the bounty of metals from the earth.
“So, these are the famed forges.”
Mune turned towards the voice, and saw that Hidetoyo stood next to him. The man was twice his age, around his late forties. Mune had learned that the man had been a guest of the Shogun of Himeji Castle for many years, even before that fateful year that Mura defeated him in the final of the Challenge Tournament. Once he had completed his training and was recruited into the army, he found out that the seasoned warrior from the east was assessing Himeji and the greater Kansai Region for its military credentials.
“Indeed they are, Hidetoyo. The greatest blades in all Japan are forged here.”
The older warrior laughed. “That is a bold claim, young man. You are lucky that I have heard such stories myself, otherwise I would think you boastful.”
“I would never do such a thing. To be boastful is to invite challenge, and of the sort that one would not be able to meet.”
“Then how do you know that the blades here are the best?”
Mune pulled his sword from its casing, and respectfully held it out for inspection. “This sword has been in my family for many generations, passed down to the boy who would leave the village to train at the Castle. It was forged here in Bizen.”
Hidetoyo held out his hands, requesting the sword for his own appraisal. Mune handed it to him. The seasoned warrior made some training sword strokes to test its balance, then held it to the sunlight to assess the quality of light reflected.
“It is an exceptional blade. Impeccably balanced, and the light reflects off the blade better than some diamonds I have seen.”
He held out the sword hilt to Mune, allowing him to take back his weapon.
“These weapons are the sort that must be available to all the warriors of this region, be they the army or village protectors. With the threats trying to make their way into Kansai Region, a quality blade may be a deciding factor.”
“That is true, Hidetoyo. During my years of training, many boys had their swords broken during combat drills and tournaments. Such a situation in true battle is highly undesirable.”
His companion stood in thought, looking at the village of forges. “I am considering suggesting to the Shogun of Himeji that he needs a person in this village. This person should report to him on the weapons situation, so he is not caught unprepared should any attacks move into Kansai Region proper.”
Mune considered the statement. “What do you have in mind?”
He nodded to the team of men behind them. “The team you have brought here are to be tested. We will spend some days here, possibly a month, methodically assessing each forge for their weapon quality. I am to advise the Shogun on which of you showed the greatest level of aptitude for weapons assessment, and make a suggestion on who should be his report.”
“We are warriors, not craftsmen, Hidetoyo. We could appreciate the look and balance of a sword, but to know if it would stand up to years of use is another situation altogether.”
“That is true. That’s why I am here. When I find the person who displays the greatest aptitude for weapons assessment, I will tutor them. My knowledge of weapons forging goes back to my younger days, as uncles and cousins were apprentices and then swordsmiths.”
Mune nodded. “So that is why the Shogun had you stay at Himeji Castle all these years. He wants you to find weakness that could be exploited by invading forces, and takes the steps to address it.”
The veteran nodded. “You can say that. I realised some years ago that change is coming to the whole of Japan, not just the Kansai Region. The Chubu Coalition has conquered all the lands to their east. They must sense the opportunity to reunite the country as it was in the past, but I do not believe their current master is the person to do it.”
The young warrior looked to his elder in surprise. “You do not? But Nobuoda has led his army for almost three decades. He would lead for so long, yet not reach his goal?”
“He leads, but he does so through fear. He is not a diplomat or politician; he is someone who knows what he wants, and will kill anyone in his way. That will ensure your death at the hands of someone you’ve dishonoured. A true leader earns the respect of his followers by being resourceful.”
Mune stood there for a time, considering what he had heard. He had realised such a thing during his training years. Strength by force did not work in isolation, but alongside respect and skilful assessment, it created something greater than the sum of its parts.
Hidetoyo looked back to the other men, who were talking amongst themselves while waiting for their orders. “We best make our way into the village. We still need to find some accommodation before we can start our work.”
The pair called the men to attention, and led them into the village.
– X –