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    Standing on a hill near Kyoto, Nam Gi-ju had a peculiar expression as he gazed at the city.

    “It looks more like China than Japan.”

    The downtown area of Kyoto was composed of a square-shaped city wall on a wide plain with a grid-patterned cityscape.

    As sea routes became more active, Joseon envoys frequently traveled to China via the sea. The appearance of Kyoto was almost identical to the old capitals of China that they had passed through on their way to Beijing while escorting the envoys.

    “Shall we go?”

    “Let’s go.”

    Nam Gi-ju’s group, who had been briefly admiring the layout of Kyoto from the hill, began moving towards the city at the words of the retainer sent by the shogun.

    ***

    Passing through Rashomon, the southern gate of Kyoto, Nam Gi-ju’s group headed north along Suzaku Avenue.

    At the end of the avenue, a palace surrounded by high walls appeared again.

    “This is the imperial palace where the Emperor resides.”

    At the words of the shogunate retainer in charge of the guide, Nam Gi-ju briefly asked.

    “Then should we go in and pay our respects?”

    At Nam Gi-ju’s words, the retainer shook his head with a slight smile.

    “There is no need for that.”

    “Is that so? I understand.”

    Nam Gi-ju responded briefly to the retainer’s words.

    This was because Nam Gi-ju had also heard about the political situation in Japan beforehand.

    Arriving at the shogun’s residence under the escort of the shogunate cavalry, Nam Gi-ju forced back a wry laugh that threatened to escape and inwardly cursed.

    ‘Damn it! It’s someone else’s country, but just look at the state of this nation!’

    The arrangement of the shogunate buildings and the imperial palace was utterly disrespectful.

    Even in Gyeongbokgung in Hanseong and the royal palace built in Gaeseong during the previous dynasty, no other buildings were allowed to be built behind the palace.

    This was not only for safety reasons but also a matter of etiquette.

    If buildings were compared to people, the only ones who could sit behind the king were the most senior members of the royal family, such as the former king who served as regent or the Queen Dowager.

    It was unthinkable for a subject to sit behind the king. And the same applied to the arrangement of buildings.

    Of course, if the palace was built in the very center of the city, like the Forbidden City in Beijing, with the idea that the emperor – the center of China – was the center of the world, it could be an exception. However, if the palace was located in the north, as in Gaeseong, Hanseong, and Kyoto, such an arrangement was the epitome of disrespect.

    It was a matter for which one could be treated as a traitor for insulting the king, with no room for argument.

    However, the shogunate building was located right behind the imperial palace. Although not as massive as the imperial palace, it was a large-scale building that boasted an imposing presence.

    Therefore, even Nam Gi-ju, known for his lack of emotional expression, momentarily lost his composure and inwardly cursed.

    ‘I heard Japan has two kings! It’s really true!’

    However, since it was ultimately another country’s affair, and considering the task at hand, Nam Gi-ju suppressed his emotions as much as possible.

    ***

    Entering the shogunate, Nam Gi-ju’s group had an audience with Ashikaga Yoshinori, the 6th shogun.

    “I pay my respects to the King of Japan.”

    “You must have had a long journey. Let’s first relieve your fatigue and then have a conversation.”

    Hearing Yoshinori’s words through the interpreter, Nam Gi-ju bowed his head and replied.

    “I am grateful for your hospitality.”

    That night, after a grand banquet, Yoshinori met separately with the retainers of Ouchi and Tsushima.

    “Why did your lords not come with you?”

    Generally, when envoys came from Joseon, at least the lord of Tsushima would accompany them to Kyoto.

    However, this time, neither the lord of Tsushima nor the head of the Ouchi clan came along, and only their retainers had come.

    In response to Yoshinori’s question, the retainer of the Ouchi clan lowered his head deeply and answered.

    “Our lord suddenly fell ill…”

    “Fell ill?”

    “He was suddenly stricken with a severe cold and fever… Instead, here…”

    The retainer of the Ouchi clan, prostrating on the floor, took out a letter from his bosom and raised it above his head.

    The shogunate retainer, who took the letter on behalf of Yoshinori, removed the seal and confirmed that there was nothing unusual. Having verified that there was nothing amiss with the envelope and its contents, the shogunate retainer respectfully presented the neatly folded letter to Yoshinori.

    “Hmm…”

    Reading the contents of the letter, Yoshinori glared at the Ouchi retainer and spoke.

    “It’s regrettable that he couldn’t come due to a severe fever from a cold. I hope he recovers soon.”

    “I am deeply ashamed!”

    “What about Tsushima then?”

    “Just before coming, there were signs of pirate movement, so he couldn’t come.”

    “Is that so? Pirates… Well~. It is indeed a big problem. The lord must be having a tough time.”

    The retainer of Tsushima also presented a letter to Yoshinori.

    After reading the letters, Yoshinori waved his hand.

    “You have done well. Convey my words to your lords. ‘I will let it slide this time.’ Understood?”

    “Yes, my lord!”

    The retainers of Tsushima and Ouchi answered while breaking out in a cold sweat and politely withdrew.

    Watching their departure, Yoshinori turned to his retainers.

    “Why do you think Tsushima and Ouchi couldn’t come?”

    In response to Yoshinori’s question, one of the retainers answered.

    “They are probably preoccupied with calculating the gains and losses that Joseon’s proposal will bring.”

    “That’s likely the case.”

    Yoshinori nodded at the retainer’s answer.

    The letter from Joseon stating, ‘We have an urgent matter to discuss and will send envoys,’ also briefly mentioned the issues to be discussed.

    Joseon had conveyed two agenda items.

    One was the lease of ports in Tsushima, and the other was the desire to open a trading post in the Ouchi region.

    The shogunate had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Joseon envoys due to the end of Joseon’s letter stating, ‘We wish to discuss and coordinate the details through the envoys we send.’

    “Based on the current situation, it seems that both Tsushima and Ouchi have accepted Joseon’s proposal, right?”

    “It appears so.”

    “Then what should I do? Should I clap hands in agreement or make a fuss? Both Tsushima and Ouchi are not to my liking.”

    At Yoshinori’s words, the retainers began to discuss their opinions among themselves.

    After exchanging opinions, the retainers advised Yoshinori.

    “If Joseon provides sufficient benefits to our shogunate, it would be best to accept the proposal.”

    “Why? Both of them don’t listen well to me.”

    “Aren’t Tsushima and Ouchi rivals?”

    At the retainers’ answer, Yoshinori clapped his hands.

    “That’s right!”

    From the shogunate’s perspective, both Ouchi and Tsushima were undesirable clans. Ouchi was a powerful clan that had built up its capabilities while engaging in trade as much as the shogunate. Concerned about this, the previous shogun had devised a scheme, and the head of the Ouchi clan, falling for this scheme, had rebelled and died in battle.

    Afterward, someone who seemed likely to obey the shogunate was appointed as the heir, but a civil war broke out, expelling him, and the current head, Morimi, succeeded the position. The shogunate tried to make an issue of this, but the clans surrounding Ouchi all recognized Morimi as the head, forcing the shogunate to acknowledge him as well.

    Tsushima was no different. As a member of the Shoni clan in Kyushu, which disobeyed the shogunate, Tsushima was a clan that paid lip service to the shogunate.

    The only fortunate thing was that Ouchi and Tsushima, or more precisely, the Shoni clan of Kyushu, were mortal enemies. Ouchi’s move to regain their lost power was to advance into Kyushu, and in the process, the Shoni clan had to suffer enormous damage.

    The weakening of the Shoni clan, the native ruling power in Kyushu, was what the shogunate wanted, so they even granted Ouchi the position of Tandai (探題) of Kyushu, and Ouchi and Tsushima became rivals who couldn’t wait to devour each other.

    Therefore, Yoshinori reached a straightforward conclusion.

    “I like this very much. Let’s accept Joseon’s proposal to some extent while securing benefits for ourselves.”

    “Yes, my lord!”

    ***

    With the shogunate having predetermined the direction, the talks proceeded smoothly. Of course, it was smooth in the sense that there were no major debates or disagreements, not that the talks themselves progressed quickly.

    With Yoshinori stepping back, Nam Gi-ju’s group and the shogunate retainers coordinated their opinions.

    “Let’s proceed with the leasing of Tsushima’s naval base as agreed upon between Joseon and Tsushima.”

    “Very well.”

    “Then let’s move on to the next agenda. Regarding the establishment of trading posts, Joseon wants two locations, right?”

    “Yes.”

    Initially, Joseon had decided to establish only one trading post. However, a point was soon raised regarding this.

    “If only one location is designated in the Ouchi clan’s territory, the shogunate may oppose it. We need to provide an appropriate bait to the shogunate as well.”

    As the objection was valid, a meeting was held on this matter. And the number of trading posts to be established increased to two.

    “Where does Joseon want them to be located?”

    To the shogunate retainer’s question, Nam Gi-ju promptly replied.

    “First, we would like to establish trading posts in one of Shimonoseki or Nagato, and one location recommended by the shogunate.”

    “Is that so?”

    Hearing Nam Gi-ju’s answer, the retainers had troubled expressions.

    ‘There are too many options to choose from!’

    In the end, the retainers had to declare a recess.

    Because of this, although the mood of the meeting was good, it ended up consuming an enormous amount of time.

    After a series of time-consuming meetings, the locations for the Joseon trading posts were finally decided.

    Nagato and Naniwa (Osaka).

    With all agreements reached, Nam Gi-ju boarded the return journey with a sense of relief.

    On the observation deck of the panokseon heading to Shimonoseki, Nam Gi-ju inwardly muttered as he gazed at the sea.

    ‘I wonder if the secret envoys did well?’

    ***

    “My lord! I have returned!”

    As the retainer prostrating on the ground announced his return, Morimi calmly replied.

    “Good work. So, where was it decided to establish the trading post?”

    “In Nagato.”

    At the retainer’s answer, Morimi frowned.

    “As expected of the shogun. He used a clever trick.”

    Shimonoseki was a traditional trading port, and Ouchi had long established solid defense facilities there.

    However, with the designation of Nagato, Ouchi had to spend manpower and resources to enhance defense facilities in Nagato as well.

    That was why Morimi referred to it as a “clever trick.”

    “My lord! Please forgive my mistake!”

    As the retainer pleaded for forgiveness, Morimi replied with an unconcerned expression.

    “It’s alright. I had already anticipated the high possibility of Nagato being chosen. Joseon had also initially pointed out Nagato. And…”

    Pausing for a moment, Morimi brought a teacup to his lips and continued.

    “In the meantime, a secret envoy came from Joseon.”

    “A secret envoy, you say?”

    “Yes. The official envoys were just a decoy.”

    At Morimi’s words, the retainer gulped.

    “What did Joseon offer?”

    “Joint development of the Iwami silver mine.”

    “Gasp!”

    The Iwami silver mine had been discovered quite some time ago but had not been properly mined. The reason was that Japan’s technology could not yet dig deep enough.

    Morimi and his fellow retainers continued with joyful expressions.

    “With Joseon’s technology, the mining output will increase several-fold!”

    “And Joseon will even pay the wages, it’s the icing on the cake!”

    “Indeed! This will give us room to breathe in strengthening our military!”

    Nodding at his retainers’ words, Morimi showed a slightly regretful expression.

    “It’s just a bit disappointing about the distribution ratio. 65% to 35%… Of course, it’s not a big loss since Joseon agreed to pay the wages, but…”

    “It’s a profitable deal since we can learn Joseon’s mining techniques!”

    “It would have been nice if we could have obtained refining techniques as well…”

    Unable to hide his disappointment, Morimi gave orders to his retainers.

    “Try reaching out to Ming. Ask if we can find refining technicians.”

    “Yes, my lord!”

    Having given orders to his retainers, Morimi once again licked his lips.

    “By the way, was his name Kim Jong-seo? He seemed quite useful…”

    The reaction was the same for Won Do-jin, the Governor-General of Kyushu.

    “Was his name Hwangbo In? Joseon has many talented individuals.”

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