In many ways, spending time with women was a great way to let loose and relieve tension. Soldiers on the battlefield just waiting to be shot easily developed psychological issues without outlets.
Claude finally understood why Berklin and the other nobles wanted to go to the tavern in Eimis after every excursion. Facing the enemy and watching one's friends die or get hurt did nothing good for the mind. Only good booze and quality time with women relax the heart after such experiences.
But Claude had great self-control and the killing was fine to him. As the war progressed, however, he grew less certain he'd survive and return home. The stress and tension gradually accumulated. Though he appeared confident and reliable to others, he did feel quite a bit of stress inside. He had been dreaming quite a bit about his adventures with Borkal, Welikro and Eriksson back in middle school lately.
Only now did he finally understand the wonders of women. Though he was tired last night, he slept really well and didn't dream at all. He woke up in the morning and did three sessions of 'morning stretches' with the baroness. The two cuddled all the way till noon before getting out of bed. Though he was worn out, he was relaxed and his mind sharp and ready. It was as if he had let go of a heavy burden and his thoughts were so much clearer. The worries that weighed on him were wiped clean instantly and he no longer appeared down from time to time like before.
"We received a reply by carrier pigeon this morning," Myjack said.
He had been waiting outside the door to hand Claude the letter the moment he got up.
The letter said HQ acknowledged the situation and that they would send people to investigate the relationship between Baroness Vaskiri and Liboyd Molowski. According to them, it might take up to three days, so they asked Claude to show the baroness good hospitality until they arrived, even warning him to not offend her no matter what. The letter was signed by Major Lederfanc.
Oh, he'd treat her well alright. He'd treat her to the warmest, sweatiest bed she'd ever touched.
"Take Gum with you and go to the nearby villages. Get me quality ingredients and fine wine. Be back by sunset. I have to cook for the baroness," Claude said as he tossed his subordinate a sack containing some seven crowns.
Myjack turned to look for Gum.
For lunch, Claude cooked another simple meal. He had a good appetite and ate seven fried eggs in one sitting. He had used a little too much energy the previous night and had to recover, after all.
The lady returned to his room to rest that afternoon. Her original room was inhabited by her two maids. Claude had to check on the mountain pass outpost, however, so he could not accompany her.
Mazik shot Claude an envious glance and gave him a thumbs-up. Only a fresh-faced officer like Claude could do what he'd just done, and done it so hard Mazik could hear it through the floor boards. He wondered aloud if he should accompany the two lonely maids.
Claude ignored the thumbs-up and asked about the number of people that went through the checkpoint, as well as the tent of mounted scouts that returned last night. The tent split into four groups of three riders to scout around Eastern Askilin and the Great Plains of Canas. They left in the morning and returned during the night when Claude was tending to the baroness, so they made their report to Mazik.
"Situation normal," Mazik said, dejectedly pulling his hand back after seeing Claude's disinterest at his thumbs-up, "Last night, the last group of scouts to return reported that they travelled around ten kilometres deep into the great plains and didn't see a single trace of enemy troops, hence their slightly delayed return."
"It's to be expected. The duchies of Canas and Askilin, unlike our kingdom, still use the feudal system. The two mountain paths here are actually private property in these duchies. Even if the military wishes to deploy their troops there, they have to get the approval of the nobles that own the land and give them appropriate compensation before they can come to attack us. Before negotiating the terms, the nobles won't allow the nation's forces to pass through their land."
"How can that be?" Mazik said, his mouth wide agape, "This is war! How can the nobles do that?"
"There's nothing weird about it. The nobles only contribute the bare minimum they are obligated to in the form of money and troops. However, their hereditary fiefs are a whole different matter. They have proper sovereignty over their fiefs and the troops of the nation can only travel through highways owned by the nation. They won't easily enter private property. Only when the nobles' dominions are invaded would they allow their nation's military to step in and intervene. Otherwise, they would refuse letting any other force enter their fief and will resist with force even if they have to."
In the following few days, apart from the routine dinner and bedtime exercises, Claude talked a lot with the baroness and they soon found their common interest -- firearms. The beauty was the one to first draw a rough design about the modifications she envisioned. There were 48 muskets lined up in four rows on top of each other and mounted on a metal frame that could be rotated in the drawing. The frame could also be installed on carriages for mobility.
The rationale behind that design was so that these concentrated musket arrays could be used as fortifications to fire at incoming cavalry to cause maximum damage with bullet concentration. Claude shook his head in disagreement and pointed that they could only be used in one burst. Reloading took too much time after they fired and that wasn't practical on the battlefield. In fact, they would be even less effective than the light infantry cannons. The only advantage to that design was that it could simulate scatter shot rounds that reached further distances.
She had to admit that Claude had a good point. In fact, it was due to the impracticality of the design that it hadn't even been developed into the real thing. Her father had the same opinion as Claude in that only concentrated, continuous fire could stop the rapid advances of light cavalry. It was a shame that her design didn't allow for continuous fire.
The problem lied therein that Freian firearms designed had concentrated completely on muzzleloading for the past few centuries. Even Aueras, whose manufacturing was acknowledged to be the best in Eastern Freia, spent two long decades to develop muskets that could fire further than 350 metres. The kingdom's Aubass Mark 2 was famed for being ahead of the competition in terms of weight, shooting range, durability, quality and reliability.
That was the reason the accuracy mechanism of the Aubass Mark 3 was quickly replicated by the Alliance. Aueras already had the advantage in terms of weapons, but now, they had the added edge of accuracy. While the knockoffs produced by the Alliance couldn't shoot as precisely and far as their Aueran counterparts, the precise aiming technique was used to great effect by the Alliance to fend off the advancing Aueran troops.
The reason the baroness bought the two Aubass Mark 3s for a high price in the black market was to see whether she could get inspiration for new designs. She believed that precise aiming would indeed be effective to curb light cavalry, but the muzzleloading mechanism still frustrated her. Even the most practice soldier could only fire three rounds within a minute at most, assuming there were zero errors during the cumbersome reloading process.
So, when the beauty jokingly asked whether Claude had a better idea for a faster-loading firearm, Claude glared at her seriously for a moment and said, "I really don't understand why you musketsmiths have to slavishly stick to the matchlock design and make only minor changes to the weight, length of the barrel or shape of the parts. Why don't you consider a way to improve the ignition mechanism and the bullets? If you want to raise the rate of fire, maybe even make it possible to rapid-fire, then perhaps you can consider making weapons that can load from the back."
She still hasn't caught on to the last sentence Claude said. "Changes to the ignition mechanism and the bullets have long been considered, but the muskets that came from the fruit of that research couldn't compare to existing matchlocks used by the various nations. They are even inferior to hunting muskets. Research on those firearms don't have much of a future."
Claude sighed. "That's why you guys ran into a dead end with that kind of thinking. Think about it: matchlocks centuries ago definitely can't compare to their current counterparts. It's through slow and gradual improvements that they've become what they are today, mature and reliable designs.
"While the new prototypes can't shoot as far or lethal as current muskets, it's just a matter of time and effort poured into research. It'd definitely be possible to improve those muskets until they're as good as modern matchlocks. Perhaps when that time comes, it will mark a turning point in the history of firearms development. You'd be branching off and developing a firearm that's completely different from a matchlock."
The baroness stood there, stumped. She felt Claude's words had touched the depths of her psyche. She recalled what he had said moments earlier, "Do you think it's possible to load from the back? The breach, you mean?"
"Why not? I often think about how convenient it would be if we could just open a whole at the back of the gun to pop the bullet and powder in and close the whole back before shooting. Come to think of it, aren't there rounds with paper cartridges already containing the powder? If that's the case, I would only have to pop a single thing in from the breach. That'd be far more convenient."
"Go out for a moment and let me gather my thoughts..." Claude seemed to have opened a door to a new world in her mind. A torrent of ideas assailed her and inspiration came flooding in. Afraid that Claude would interrupt her train of thoughts, she shooed Claude out of the room.
Happy times often passed without one noticing. Four days later, Claude received a letter from HQ stating that the baroness' identity had been confirmed. She was indeed the daughter of Master Boyd, Baroness Vaskiri. Major Lederfanc ordered Claude to apologize to her for delaying her journey and extend an invitation to her and her father on the army's behalf to go to the capital for a tour of the national firearms research institute.
When the two were tussling about in bed the night before her departure, she told Claude she would go to Aueras with her father, but only after his health condition improved. She also said she would continue the research they'd discussed.
Three days after sending her off, Major Lederfanc came for an inspection.