Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 536
On the 18th of the 1st month of Year 602, Claude secretly boarded Ironclad's new flagship, Rageshark, to head back to the region. Originally, he should only be returning a month later with the council members and soldiers after the enfeoffment ceremony. However, he excused himself by citing having military matters to deal with and left with his adjutant and guards.
Rageshark, Arrowfish, Flying Fish and Bullhead Whale formed a small escort flotilla. Even though tens of ships flying black flags appeared in the horizon, the ironclad flotilla didn't seem to mind them and merely blew their loud whistles as they sailed past the first of those sail ships. Soon, the sail ships were far behind them.
"Are those the Blacksail pirates?" Claude asked.
"Yes. They should be heading towards Nubari Islands," Moriad said, holding a really thick cigar in hand.
Claude heard Borkal say that the leader of Blacksail was their childhood friend, Eriksson. Back then, Eriksson became a pirate to search for his lost father and managed to discover an uninhabited island in the deeper parts of Tranquil Ocean.
It was said that his parents and the family members of the pirates lived on the island that could support up to 200 thousand people. Eriksson even had ambitions to declare themselves a sovereign nation with that island alone and raided Aueran shores nonstop during the civil war to kidnap talented smiths and artisans. Usually, the pirates would only switch out for others once every three months of non-stop raiding at the pirate heaven, Nubari Islands.
Thanks to Borkal's coordination, Blacksail was neutral towards the region and maintained a decent relationship, having never infringed upon their waters. Sometimes, they would drop their black flags and pretend to be merchants to sell off their pillaged goods in the region.
"Are they still purchasing supplies from us?" Claude asked.
Moriad shook his head. "That, I'm not too sure. Colonel Borkal should be the one in charge of this. Basically, they only buy supplies through the wild-bull company, and only through Port Cobius. They never sail to Port Patres.
"However, three years back, the company once made a request to buy ironclads to us on the pirates' behalf, which we denied. Ever since then, they bought lots of steam and hot-air engines from the company. They should be trying to research their own ironclads."
Claude nodded. He didn't doubt that Eriksson would discover how game-changing ironclads were, given his sharp wit. Knowing that the region would definitely not agree to sell him any, he decided to undertake his own research efforts into them.
However, it was simply an impossible task for a band of pirates to achieve. The most they could do was clothe their sail ships in a sheet of metal armour. As for the steam and hot-air engines they bought, they would have to refit them for use on ships, which was a highly difficult and complex feat of engineering. Claude didn't have high hopes of Eriksson's success unless he had at least three to four five-ring rune magi in his service.
"Do you encounter the pirates often?" Claude asked.
"Only occasionally," Moriad said with a chuckle, "Back when I was transferred to our patrol fleet, we would run into them during our training voyages. They would often sail alongside us and mock us, but without ill intent. They were just too bored and wanted to nudge us for a couple packs of smokes.
"Back then, we were all using sail ships, so they would demonstrate some manoeuvres to us like flanking pursuit and shooting pursuit, treating us like complete newbies. We would often end up quite pissed at being schooled, but I have to admit that if we really fought back then, we wouldn't be their match when it comes to sail ships.
"But after we started putting the ironclads into service, encounters with them were only met with envious and jealous glares. When Ironclad as a fleet was properly formed, we slowly began to distance ourselves, as they understand better than anyone that they aren't our match no matter how good they are at manoeuvering sail ships."
While they used to dominate with their skills, they became obsolete the moment ironclads were introduced. Claude was reminded of the deal with the kingdom to provide them with a fleet of ironclad ships and furrowed his brow once more. What could he do to skimp on that deal?
Moriad didn't notice his brooding and continued excitedly, "By the way, Chief, it's great that you're back. I happened to have something to request of you."
"What is it?"
"Well, didn't Madam Sonia finish researching armour-piercing rounds for us? I wanted to retire a few old ironclad destroyers to use them as target practice to test the capabilities of those rounds. While they shoot a perfect hole through sail ships just fine, we better prepare for ironclad ships with how the other Freian nations are also researching them. If armour-piercing rounds end up working out, we wouldn't have to worry about fighting other ironclad ships in future." Moriad tapped on his cigar to shake off the ash.
Claude froze. "Sonia managed to invent armour-piercing rounds?"
"That's right. During our last battle with Seaking, we noticed that our explosive shot only managed to harm the crew exposed on the deck. However, they had little effect on the thick boards of the ships. That's why we gave Madam Sonia some feedback and hoped she could help us find a solution through those thick hull boards.
"She agreed and began working on it. Last month, we received a shipment of 200 plus of those rounds and upon testing them, normal sail ships were shot through with a single shot and began to sink immediately. Now, I need some ironclad ships to test those rounds on, but Master Liboyd said we couldn't mess around without permission to decommission some ironclad ships from the military bigwigs."
"The master is correct. It takes us hundreds of thousands of crowns to build an ironclad for them to stay in service for at least one to two decades. The earliest-built ironclad has only remained in service for roughly six years. Decommissioning them for target practice is a huge waste of money. It's almost like you have too much of it going around. Looks like I'll have to audit your fleet's accounts to see where you're spending it all."
"No, Chief, you don't get it. After the Battle of Saint Lusk, our own ships suffered heavy damage and we only barely managed to sail back to Port Patres after three gruelling months. Repairs took another six months. However, our battle against the Shiksan navy allowed us to gain quite a lot of insight. So, for the newer ironclad ships, we focused on fixing a lot of weaknesses of the old design that were exposed through battle. In other words, we contributed to the development of ironclad ships.
"The destroyers made in the four shipyards at Port Patres are third generation. Didn't you find that Rageshark is much faster and more stable than Baldeagle, our old flagship? The destroyers behind us, Arrowfish and Flying Fish, and the ironclad transport ship Bullhead Whale are also among the newest ships we have produced. That's why they can keep up with our speed.
"There are around 30 first-generation and second-generation ironclads still docked at the kingdom's coastal area. The second-generation ships can barely keep up with the newest ones, but the first-generation ships can't even do so after repairs.
"Every time we set out on a patrol, it would feel like we're dragging dead weight behind us, whether it be just a normal flanking manoeuvre or a sudden attack. Not to mention, their loud and smoky steam engines make them easy to spot. That's why we want a few of them decommissioned for target practice or to be transferred to escort normal sail ships."
"Then, why don't you simply swap out the steam engines for new ones?"
Nowadays, even Claude didn't know how many improvements Liboyd made to the engines. All in all, it was said that the region's industrial complexes were powered by all sorts of machines like those engines. The engines specifically designed by Liboyd for ships were definitely not sold to other nations or factions.
Moriad smiled in resignation, "It's not possible. The whole bridge will have to be moved away and the ship will have to be taken apart for the removal of the old engines to be possible, not to mention the gears and pipelines that'll have to be reconfigured. Essentially, the whole ship will have to be overhauled. It would be far better to build new ones."
"Then, how many first-generation ships do we have now?" Claude stroked his growing beard stubble in thought.
"We have 22 of them, 14 of which were part of the Battle of Saint Lusk and were just repaired." As the admiral, Moriad was quite well versed on the ships in his service.
"Perhaps you can decommission all the first-generation ships and have the military council provide funding for third-generation ones to replace them."
"Really?! Will the region be willing to fund us? They said the five million crowns we got the last time was the last batch of funds we'll get. One million of that is Master Liboyd's research grant, another million will be used to heighten the technical capabilities of the shipyards, and one more million will cover the maintenance for the next three years. Of the two million we have left, we'll have to take out 400 thousand for the repairs after the battle and have only 1.5 million crowns left to build eight ships."
"Ironclad was initially planned to have 48 ships so that four flotillas of 12 could be formed. Each flotilla should have two ironclad patrol ships, eight destroyers, and two transport ships. Currently, you already have 52 ships in your fleet. Are you not satisfied yet?"
Moriad complained, "Chief, you don't get it. The first-generation ships have too many problems and often have to be sent back to the docks for checks. Even when we have enough for four flotillas of 12 ships to assemble, we'll always have to send a few more to the docks for checking after a voyage. Otherwise, I wouldn't lay in ambush for Seaking with only 20 ships. There isn't even enough for two flotillas, as the four other ships we'll need to tag along will be filled with problems.
"By the second generation, we managed to get a fix on the design and raise efficiency, but those require a huge overhaul every half a year as well, and each overhaul takes up to a month to finish. The eight shipyards of ours can never catch a breath. There will always be at least four to five ships docked and requiring maintenance.
"While we have four flotillas on paper, we need one to patrol our waters to prevent attacks by pirates or other nations on our coasts. Another will be occupied with escorting transport ships. The other will have to be split in two sub flotillas of six ships each to defend Northbay and the kingdom's coasts. The last one is being maintained and overhauled and will swap out with another flotilla when the time for their maintenance comes.
"That's why, Chief, there's nothing an admiral like me can do apart from optimising our maintenance schedules. Otherwise, we wouldn't even be able to mobilise two flotillas to respond to an enemy attack. I thought we planned to attack the Shiksan military port at first since they haven't officially called an end to the war, but I only just realised we don't even have enough ships and men for the task."
Claude didn't doubt Moriad's complaints were earnest. While Ironclad had been in service for five to six years, they were still the only fleet that possessed ironclads. Still, the problem remained that the first batch of ironclads was bound to have many issues. Otherwise, Liboyd wouldn't make so many improvements within the span of half a decade time and again.
"You have to first send the warships to Port Patres. I'll get Master Liboyd to refurbish those ships. According to our agreement with the court, we have to provide them with 16 ironclads within a year, among them including two patrollers, ten destroyers and four transporters--"
Before Claude finished, Moriad's expression darkened. He dropped his tomato and ignored it. "Chief, who signed that agreement with the kingdom? It's nothing short of betraying the region! The ironclads are our trump cards! If the kingdom has them, other nations on Freia will soon be able to forge them!"
Claude could only sigh and tell him about Bolonik agreeing to those conditions. They were already signed and fixed. There was no taking it back. With the enfeoffment complete, the fees were already paid for by that agreement.
Moriad instantly burst into a flurry of profanities.
"As the agreement stipulated that those ships must be the same ones as the ones we have in service now, I plan to have the first-generation ships refurbished and sent to the kingdom to reform Fearless," Claude explained, "I don't want the kingdom to know about some of our key technologies, such as the ballasts at the bottom of the ship, so I plan to have them revamped into storage space. I'm sure the naval officers of the kingdom will be more than happy with them since they use Fearless so often for trading to make a quick buck."
During the Battle of Saint Lusk, some seven to eight ironclads came under heavy cannon fire and cracks showed on their hulls. It was only thanks to the ballasts that they managed to sail back for maintenance. Without them, they would've long sunk.
"We'll give the kingdom these old ships and issue new ones for you. That way, we'll be able to lighten your burden on maintenance and spending, focusing instead on increasing your combat capabilities. We'll give the old ships away fast while we still can. Otherwise, we won't be able to hand these old ships over in two years' time.
"As admiral, you can work with Liboyd to see whether there are other key technologies we can remove from those ships without affecting their superficial combat capabilities. That way, we can hand over subpar ships that will become obsolete in five to six years' time.
"As for the rest of the first-generation ships, you may use them for target practice and ammunition testing. That way, even if there are any unexpected changes, we'll still be capable of destroying the kingdom's ironclads."
Moriad had calmed down by then, understanding Claude's current priorities. "Then, can we have enough funding for 22 third-generation warships? I'm asking this because the newest ships cost almost double to build thanks to the vast improvements made."
"Don't worry. We have enough funding to go around this time. After all, we managed to save an average of 380 thousand crowns per ship in this arms deal."