"Looks like you've been having a rather good time. You seem far more toned, unlike the flab you were when I first saw you back then." Claude nudged Borkal's stomach with satisfaction. After losing 80 catties, Borkal looked markedly different. The uniform no longer made him look like an overstuffed meat bun. While he still looked a little fat, he didn't seem like he would start hyperventilating after the slightest bit of movement.
Borkal didn't bother with Claude's jokes. He locked his gaze on the ceiling as if there was something really interesting for him to analyse. It was quite apparent he wasn't too happy about being forced to lose weight. He thought that he had suffered quite a lot in Thundercrash, so he now felt a little proud. He probably heard Moriad mention that Claude had an important task for him, so he was trying to act uncooperatively to protest the treatment he had been given.
Claude had never doubted the abilities of his teenage playmate. Borkal had a natural charisma that allowed him to easily get into others' good graces and cause them to offer him help subconsciously That was the reason his business was so smooth sailing. He knew how to split his profits and let others have some pieces of the pie. His harmless face also made others naturally put their guards down around him. Coupled with his sharp business acumen, how could he not make money?
That was why when Claude heard Moriad complaining about how Borkal managed to get along with the others in the corps to the point he was receiving meals enough for three to four people, he knew that his fat-loss plan was ruined. No matter how strict he policed Borkal, it would be pointless. He had made Thundercrash's kitchen his home turf.
It wasn't that complicated a reason. Even with major privileges, Borkal should've only been able to get an additional meal serving. Yet, Moriad said Borkal ate enough for four at a time. That showed he earned the trust and goodwill of the canteen. He could eat as he pleased with nobody able to stop him.
Claude wasn't mad either at being ignored. He returned to his desk and sat down in his chair, staring at Borkal without a word. The office fell completely silent with nobody speaking minute after minute.
Eventually, Borkal seemed unable to take it any longer. He started stealing glances at Claude from the corner of his eyes and noticed him looking back at him while leaning back into his chair lazily. He then began to feel something was off: he was standing up and Claude was looking at him seated. No matter what pose he stood in, it felt really weird.
"W-what did you c-call me in for?" he asked in the end, dropping much of his stubborn act immediately. He decided he would take this up with him after he dealt with this matter first.
"Major, you have to greet me." Claude put both his hands behind his head.
Borkal was flaring mad, but there was nothing he could do. Claude was now his superior and he was in the right. Though Claude was the one who summoned him, he was just a major and had to salute and greet.
"General, I, Major Borkal Bodeman, tribesman of the Banjilia keeper tribe, am reporting for duty. I await your orders." He stood up straight and saluted after his loud greeting.
"To attention." Claude returned with a casual salute and spoke in a professional tone. "Major Borkal, I regret to tell you that your Banjilia keepers are no more. They have been absorbed into Thundercrash and the other Monolith folks, so your post has also been cancelled. You're merely a major on colonial grounds awaiting your next post.
"Additionally, theatre command has many thoughts about your usefulness. Many believe that you're unfit to be major based on your body shape alone. They easily come to the conclusion that you're not even fit to be a soldier. Some even suggested you be discharged as a captain. What do you think we should do, Major Borkal?"
"Nothing!" Borkal glared at him angrily with his veins popping. If he was discharged dishonourably and returned home, he would be the humiliation of the family. Everyone knew he had become a major, but if he lost a rank in Nubissia and was given a dishonourable discharge as a captain, his family's business would no longer benefit off him any longer and his rank would be a joke. He would never be able to raise his head high again.
"Claude, is this how you want to treat your old friend?" Borkal said, his face flushed with rage. "Don't beat around the bush. I know you have something important you need me to do, so that's why you're threatening me with your subtleties, right? Just tell me. What will you have me do?"
Yet, Borkal didn't expect Claude's reaction would be even more overblown than his. Claude slammed the table with a loud wham and stood up angrily. "So you still dare to claim to be my old friend?! I had you go lose weight, but it seems to me now that you're eating to your heart's content in Thundercrash! Three to four servings, I see. Are you a pig who knows nothing but eating and fattening up? Just look at your figure! You call yourself a soldier?
"You're roughly 1.76 metres tall and after losing 80 plus catties, you still weigh still around 194 catties. There's nothing but fatty meat on you! You think I'm trying to humiliate you by suggesting a discharge? I'm trying to keep you alive! Fool! This is the war theatre, not your stupid peaceful city where you can eat and drink all you want! Every soldier here is prepared to stake their lives in battle! Do you think anything good will come from your figure on the battlefield?
"You think discharging you as a captain is shameful? Fool! Don't forget that this is the war theatre! You can only be discharged after losing a rank! You're not a normal soldier who can just go home if you don't pass the tests! You're a major! The former tribesman of a local force! The moment you were transferred to my war theatre, our fates were bound! If you don't get demoted, we won't be able to pass the kingdom's audits, understood?!"
Borkal jerked his neck back.
"I never wanted to be discharged."
Claude was so angry he was laughing.
"Then what can you do? Continue to eat like you have always done? Drain the enemy food stores after you are taken captive? I'm doing this for your own good, fatty. I want to keep you alive. Don't forget you're the only son your parents have. Not to mention you have three sons of your own. If you don't want your children to lose their father, you better listen to what I tell you and go back home after your discharge. While you'll lose a rank, at least you'll get to stay home and enjoy life with your family."
"It's not like I haven't tasted battle, Claude. Don't give me that 'take care of me' bullshit. You know well I can't face anyone if I return discharged. I can't join the veteran support groups. They'll see me as an insult."
He gazed deep into Claude's eyes.
"I know you have other plans. Just tell me what you need me to do."
Claude shrugged helplessly.
"Fine, at least your head is still sharp. You know I won't force your discharge. Seriously, Boa, you know you can't go into battle with that figure. The enemy will instantly recognise you as a high-ranking officer and take you out.
"You can't get a good post here either. Your skills are mercantile. You're barely even a greenhorn in troop command. I wanted to put you in logistics, but Major-General Skri is nothing if not strict. He'll instantly suspect you of embezzling supplies the moment he sets his eyes on that tub of lard you call a stomach. How else could you get so fat?
"I want you to take off your uniform. I want you to join my secret intelligence. Given your figure, no one will suspect you of being a spy. These are some documents you can look over. You can either go home thereafter, or follow the plan. The choice is yours."
Borkal shot him a hateful glare. The bastard was trying to entrap him again. He knew Claude too well by now. But he had no choice. Who could've imagined Claude's rank would shoot up so much? Claude was now a major-general, a field marshal, and folksman of Thundercrash, whereas Borkal was just the tribesman of a local force. He was free for Claude to mould as he pleased. It was an absolutely disgusting feeling.
He opened the folder and gave it a brief scan. His eyes lit up. The mission was simple. He was to become a smuggler investing in the bull business and head to Port Vebator. Once there he was to collect any scrap of information he could find.
Bull business used to be very popular in Balingana. Miselk's scorched earth did away with that just as it did away with many other things. Claude had ordered Myjack to buy up every company he could to clear the field. And they'd all been put under Borkal's name.
He was to head to Port Vebator with four ships full of food on a search for business in the dwindling bull industry. Claude was being quite generous. He had signed over 20 percent actual shares in the business to Borkal. He would thus make a profit of any sale he could make.
"Aren't you afraid you'll be accused of aiding the enemy?" Borkal asked.
The documents were clear that Shiks' food crisis had not let up. They were incurring huge losses because they had to rely on food shipments from the mainland. So selling them food would be very profitable, but would also seriously undermine the advantage this gave their own side.
Claude spat out a couple laughs.
"Don't worry. No matter how much you sell, we'll rob them clean!"
Borkal cursed quietly. His time in Thundercrash had taught him much of Claude's exploits. He was a hero in the eyes of the men. Their god of victory. Borkal's ears had nearly fallen off after about a dozen stories.
"So I'll be free to make decisions on all things trade?"
"Yes. As a major investor in a failing company, you are free to make any decisions you deem necessary. However, I recommend you buy as many workhorses as you can. They're in incredibly short supply right now, especially with the 100 thousand new families. They now sell for three times what they fetch back home. I trust Shiksan informants, if they exist, have long since let their masters know. Trading your food for workhorses will be the sensible business move. You'll only look suspicious if you don't try to take advantage of this lucrative opportunity..."
"I had heard the head chefs of Thundercrash bring this up before. They said they would often be stopped on their carriage during their shopping trips and asked whether they would be willing to sell their workhorses for a high price. They even have guards on duty watch their carriages in fear that the horses would be stolen," Borkal said.
Claude grimaced helplessly. "It's a problem we have no way of solving for now. There are already many cases of conflict among the settlers because of work horses. That's why I hope you can buy some more from Port Vebator to relieve us a little. But don't forget, trading is not your main assignment. What you absolutely have to do is to find out what happened to our other informants and send us updates on the situation starting three months back."
"I'll need the account book of the past year for this company as well as their former members. As an investor, I must know the company well as well as their usual pipelines and connections," Borkal said.
"Of course. I already have them prepared--" Claude pulled on the bell-rope behind him and Anders came in. "--General, your orders?"
Claude pointed at Borkal. "Bring Major Borkal to Colonel Kefist from logistics. Tell him Operation Bull Trade can begin."
Even though he didn't know what the operation entailed, he politely asked Borkal to leave with him.
Borkal shot Claude one final glance, saluted, and left with the man.
Claude returned home for lunch to good news from Angelina. She had had a hot-air engine built. She complained about the thing's weight and unwieldiness, however. It was nowhere near as powerful or refined as the things Claude had had her make before. She believed using an array to make such an inelegant thing was an insult. She refused to make any more.
Claude laughed and told her the thing she would be worth as much as an array. He went to her laboratory impatiently after the meal and inspected her work intently. After making sure it wasn't that much different from the one he knew since childhood, he ordered Gum to load it on the carriage for shipment to the forge. He also sent someone to notify Weyblon to make a trip there.
Hot-air engines had many weaknesses. For instance, they took a long time to start up. It would take up to ten minutes for enough wood to burn to make the piston move. Only after the black gas escaped from the side pipe would the piston fall and rise again. The rumbling sound was also rather ear piercing.
Claude looked at Weyblon's dumbfounded look and laughed. "Friend, how do you think this compares to water power?"
"It's unbelievable!" he gasped, "General, how did you design this gas-powered machine?!"
"It's simple, my friend. If you've noticed, when you boil water in a kettle, the steam can rattle even the heavy lid. So, think about what happens when hot air expands."
"General, you're a true genius!"