Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 580
Borkal and Eriksson
Claude woke up in a horrible mood. He only managed to get sleep by the time dawn broke thanks to all that tussling in the sheets with Sheila. He had to attend a whole day's worth of strategy meetings before he arrived, only to later be told by her about the possibility of making a breakthrough before she started to sap him dry right as he was about to relax. After doing his best to sate her pent-up desires, he felt emptied out to the point that he could barely lift his finger.
If possible, Claude would have wanted to lie in bed for two whole days to get some of his vitality back. He had three days of break and didn't have to go to headquarters, after all. But before he managed to get five hours of sleep, Borkal came in uninvited. Sheila knew about the two's relationship and didn't stop him, letting him yank Claude out of bed directly.
Claude looked at him with the gaze of a killer. If he could, he really wanted to cut that lump of fat into eight pieces. There was nothing more infuriating than being awoken in the middle of his sleep. However, the fatty didn't seem to notice his mistake and even went to help himself to some wine.
Forcing his anger down, Claude washed his face and freshened up. "What's the big deal coming to wake me this early in the morning?"
Borkal didn't seem to take note of the hint of suppressed anger in his voice at all. He was even used to getting his way in camp thanks to being Claude's long-time friend, to say no more when they were now in a private setting. He finally found a bottle of wine that caught his eye and popped it open in a practiced manner. Pouring himself a glass and taking a sip, he said, "Claude, did I hear wrong? It's already ten in the morning. How's that early? We'll be having lunch in an hour or so."
Claude rubbed his temples to keep himself awake. "I'm not like you. I don't get to sleep the moment I get home. There are many other things I have to deal with. I slept real late last night and it was almost dawn by the time I got into bed. If you don't give me a good reason for disrupting my pleasant sleep, I won't mind using you as a sandbag for training."
Borkal's face paled as he looked at Claude's haggard face, only to notice his mistake. Claude didn't seem to be joking. Immediately, he stiffened. "Chief, at least you got some sleep. I didn't get a wink last night. I really don't understand why my proposal last night got so many objections.
"The way I see it, using pirates to suppress Fochs' fleets is a great deal for us. All we need is to pay out some cash. Given all the spoils we got, paying pirates to do the job is a worthwhile deal."
Claude sighed deeply. During the meeting yesterday, Borkal had suggested paying pirates off to harass the Fochsian navy, only for many other officers to voice their objections. That came as quite a blow to Borkal, who was now a major-general, and he fussed over the matter the whole night before coming to Claude first thing in the morning to discuss it.
"How should I explain this... my general..." Claude put his hands up in the air helplessly. "Boa, you have the sharp acuity of a merchant and can see the bigger picture of Operation Wildfire. That is your strength. But you're no traditional military man and you don't understand how stubborn they can get. As far as the military is concerned, pirates are not to be trusted. Yet, you were suggesting that we work together with them.
"As a merchant, you can pay pirates off to have your safety ensured. Neither them nor other pirates would be able to attack your ships. Any pirate that violates that agreement would lose a source of income in the future. So, merchants generally find pirates trustworthy. At least, their safety wouldn't be under threat if money was paid.
"But soldiers see pirates completely differently. Pirates are enemies, robbers at sea conducting illegal trade. A soldier would never trust a pirate. For instance, General Birkiin said that pirates only bully the weak and cower before the strong. Getting them to attack trading fleets is easy, but it's a whole 'nother story to get them to attack a proper naval fleet.
"Even if we're able to get in touch with the biggest pirate bands to fight the Fochsian navy and pay them a huge price for it, we won't get satisfactory results. No pirate band would be willing to go hard on a strong navy. The most they'll do is to sink two or three warships and call it a job well done.
"That's especially the case if we are the ones asking them to conduct the attack. This will become dirt they have on us. If word of this gets out, a scandal will develop and nobody can afford to be held accountable for that. That's why your suggestion was a bad one. It's only expected that the rest refused it.
"However, your usual task is espionage and reconnaissance, and getting chummy with the local factions. It's not surprising this thought occurred to you, so nobody blames you for that. Not to mention, you've just been promoted to major-general. You should spend more time with your family and flaunt your newfound status. Like me, you have three days of break, so don't stress yourself up."
Claude wanted to get Borkal out of his sight as soon as possible so he could get a little more sleep, but the latter seemed unrelenting. He poured himself another glass and downed it in one go. "I wouldn't trust other pirates to do the job, but what about Blacksail? Eriksson is our old friend. If he promises us he'll do it, I have little doubt that he won't as long as we're offering him support, such as a few ironclad warships."
It finally clicked in Claude's mind why Borkal made that suggestion, but he still shook his head. "No, Eriksson might be our friend back then, but a pirate's still a pirate. He's the leader of pirates, no less. No self-respecting soldier would trust a pirate."
Borkal seemed a little agitated. "Claude, don't forget that we grew up together. I trust Eriksson. While he's a pirate, he's still our friend. The fact that Blacksail is on good terms with the region should be proof of that. Even when we didn't have Ironclad, he didn't send his ships to raid our coasts and even chased away other pirates for us to protect our maritime routes."
Claude got up and got to the window to look out into the distance. After a moment's consideration, he asked, "Boa, have you been in contact with Eriksson the whole time?"
Borkal downed another glass of wine. "I did, so what? I didn't reveal any of our classified information. He only writes to me once every few months for some casual chat and reminiscence. He never asked me for anything either. When I returned with you from the Shiksan invasion, I noticed he wrote me four letters because I didn't reply. He was worried that something happened to me and asked if I needed help."
Claude smiled. "Why did he write to you but not me?"
"Well, you're the big man and he doesn't want to bother you. Not to mention, you're the Lord Militant and a hereditary count. How could he bring himself to rekindle your relationship? There's also his pride. If he writes to you and you don't reply, he'll definitely be embarrassed."
Claude shook his head with a smile. "No, that's not the case. Boa, Eriksson is a smart man. Even you know that writing to me won't necessarily mean he'll get a reply. Even if I did, I would ask him to surrender to the kingdom or give up on piracy and live a life of peace in the region. With my protection, nobody would dare find trouble with him. But he's quite the ambitious one and wants to be the king of pirates and found a pirate kingdom. That's why he wouldn't do something so pointless as to write to me."
Borkal seemed angered. "Claude, how do you know for sure he really has that ambition? Don't just assume you know what he thinks. In a few of his letters, he told me he sometimes wants to find a quiet place to settle down as a normal citizen and stop being a pirate. When I asked him to settle down in the region, he said he couldn't because his comrades are counting on him. He can't just give up on those with whom he had fought through life-and-death situations with."
Claude looked at him silently and waited for him to calm down. "Do you remember the first time we met him at sea? Have you forgotten what he said?"
Borkal was speechless. He recalled the first time they ran into the Blacksail Pirates and recognised Eriksson. Back then, Borkal's father had sold off all his assets and brought all his staff and their families as well as many vagabonds to form a meagre fleet with run-down ships to make a dangerous voyage to the region.
Eriksson seemed so spirited back then and had wanted to take all the vagabonds to his lair -- a rural island in some distant corner. He even called Borkal to join him and said he would make him a duke once his pirate kingdom was formed. Fortunately, Borkal didn't let it cloud his mind back then and said that the vagabonds would put a lot of pressure on Eriksson's food stocks, convincing him to not bring them to his island.
He also convinced Eriksson to stop recruiting him into his pirate band by saying he wanted to settle down in the region with his father. However, Eriksson had asked him to make a connection with Claude on his behalf so the pirates could buy supplies and ammunition from the region and sell their loot to the region as well. He had promised to keep the region's waters safe from harassment from other pirates.
However, the region later managed to get their own ships as spoils from enemy navies to form their own navy and secure their waters. A few years later, they started producing ironclad warships. Anyone paying attention knew the wind had changed direction. Sail ships were already obsolete and nations with ironclad warships would rule the seas in the future.
That was why so many Freian nations were willing to invest huge amounts of funding into researching their own ironclad warships. Many pirate bands also knew that the glory days of sail ships was ending. In another decade or so, pirates relying on sail ships would soon see their end. They would no longer be able to attack other ships escorted by ironclad warships. Instead, they would be sunk one after another.
Borkal finally snapped out of his fantasy. It was around then when Eriksson's tone of speech softened more and more. He no longer sounded like the brash pirate boss he used to be and made it sound like he chose the life of piracy because he didn't have any other choice. He claimed that he had only been labelled as a traitor and a pirate because he commandeered a kingdom's ship to search for his father with the subordinates his father left behind.
As a son, Eriksson passed with flying colours. He found his stranded father and reunited him with his mother. As a pirate, he was also hugely successful. Not only did he betray the kingdom, he also raided the kingdom's coastal areas and caused an endless stream of tragedies, becoming one of the top ten fugitives of the kingdom.
Currently, apart from the region, Aueras also had their own fleet of ironclad warships. While they still aren't enough to pose a threat to Blacksail, they were more than sufficient for defending the kingdom's waters. Borkal still recalled he once explained briefly the mechanics of the ship engines, but he was no expert. After that, Eriksson sent some men to purchase a few steam engines back home.
Half a year later, he complained to Borkal that he ruined three sail warships by trying to modify them to use steam engines, as the ships turned out to be as slow as snails. They weren't nearly as agile or speedy as they used to be.
Borkal jokingly wrote back that ship engines couldn't just be retrofitted using normal steam engines. The region's chief engineer, Liboyd, had spent more than two years to create a specialised steam engine for ships to give birth to the ironclad warships. The ironclad warships themselves, on the other hand, only started being researched thanks to Claude. The region spent more than two years before building their very first ironclad warship.
A pirate band like Eriksson's had no chance of replicating them at all. Using Claude's own words, it was a systematic problem. It involved more than just shipbuilding, namely, metallurgy, forging, casting and so on. Every step in the manufacturing process was greatly enhanced and perfected for the necessary technology to build ironclad warships to exist. Normal coastal nations wouldn't be able to succeed in that feat without at least five to six years of nonstop investment and research.
Ever since, Eriksson no longer wrote about researching ironclad warships. Instead, he wanted Borkal to ask the region whether they intended on selling the ships instead. It seemed obvious that he was aware that only ironclad warships could fight other ironclad warships. Without them, he wouldn't be able to continue his pirate career. With researching no longer an option, spending a lot of money to buy one became the only choice.
Borkal bringing the pirates up during the meeting probably had something to do with Eriksson's careful planning. Only by getting the pirates to serve the region would they stand a chance of being provided some ironclad warships to use.
Claude sat down and rapped his fingers on the table, looking at Borkal mulling over his thoughts. He finally broke the silence and said, "Boa, I'll give you a chance. Ask Eriksson whether he wants to serve the region. Consider it a cooperation. I know his character and he isn't one to humble himself that easily. Tell him that if he can eliminate one Fochsian fleet, the region will be providing him with six ironclad warships."