It was the middle of the 4th month.
Claude was currently surveying the defences at the northern mountainous coasts. Since roughly a month back when he gave the three nikancha ambassadors his conditions, they said they would go back to discuss the matter but didn't make any contact since.
However, Claude was in no rush. The first thing he did after returning to the frontlines was to move the three garrison lines stationed at the border of the eastern mountains so the way from there to the nikancha nation would be unobstructed.
Apart from that, Claude also gave command of the three lines he had withdrawn and another folk to Birkin. They would continue to construct three defence lines at the middle of the northern mountainous coasts, completely separating that area from the eastern mountains that belonged to the nikancha nation and making sure Vebator had an iron-wall defence.
During that time, some nikancha from the neighbouring tribes dared to come over to sneak around or complain. However, Birkin was no longer as tolerant as he was in the last war and ordered for any nikancha approaching the defence line to be chased away. No one of them could remain within 200 metres of the defence line.
They would fire in the air as a warning, shoot at the ground the second time and shoot them dead if the previous warnings weren't heeded. One nikancha tribe in the area probably managed to sneak away quite a lot of supplies back then and wanted to try to cross the defence line once more. Perhaps they were betting that Birkin wouldn't actually shoot, so he gathered a hundred young men and women to approach the defence line as protestors.
The men yelled that the land belonged to their tribe and the theatre wasn't allowed to build anything there, while the women tried to seduce the soldiers. But when they saw none of them had been hurt after the first two warning shots, they got the impression that the soldiers were just putting up a front to scare them and decided to double down. They were all dead when the dust settled.
Some wanted to declare war, some wanted vengeance, and some demanded the murderers be handed over. The nikancha were going to explode. They gathered a few thousand just 200 metres away and marked the borders with limestone. Then, they kept yelling at the soldiers.
The tribal elders, in their attempt to prevent any more conflict, forbade the protestors from taking any weapons, whether muskets or bows, javelins, daggers, or axes. The angered nikancha protestors could do naught but pick up sticks and stones and lob them in the soldiers' general direction.
"General! We wish to voice our strongest objections! Not only did you occupy our land, you even shot our people! You have to make a most earnest apology and make up for our losses, not to mention punishing the killers! Otherwise, we'll invoke our right to vengeance and cease being your ally!"
After the bloody incident, two nikancha elders came to Claude to spray saliva on him as they waved their arms furiously.
"Wait, aren't you getting something wrong?" Claude asked, surprised, "Who said we're still allies? Didn't we stop being allies after the last war? Why else would we be here building defences? Not that it has anything to do with you. We're just here to make preparations for when the Shiksans come.
"If you have come to declare war, I would be glad. There's no need to invoke the right to vengeance. Just send some men against us. We could use the firing practice. I promise not to advance any further. I'm sure you know taking more of your land now is pointless. We just need this for our defences. As long as you stay clear, you will remain unharmed."
"This is sovereign territory! You have trespassed on our land and killed several hundred of our people!" the shorter of the elders roared.
Wham! Claude slammed his fist on the table.
"Nonsense! Where did these hundreds come from?! There were only 84! Are you completely innumerate as well as illiterate? Is it going to be several thousand next time you open your mouth? At this rate we'll have reached the heavens by the end of the year! We even warned the bastards to buzz off. This is their fault for not listening to our warning shots!
"I know this is your territory. We're just borrowing it for now. It's not like you're using it for anything anyway. There's not a single man defending the eastern mountains now. Since you've willingly given up, why fight us for this?
"I really don't get what goes on in those heads of yours. To be frank, the three Shiksan corps will be here in another couple of days. If I were you, I'd get those protestors armed and go defend the eastern mountains. At least that way, you'll have half a month longer to live.
"Leave. I occupied your territory to defend my colonies. I don't care if this is wrong or if it counts as an invasion. I still consider you friends on account of our old relationship, so I'll make sure to avenge you."
The two elders left crestfallenly without declaring war. They knew there was nothing they could do. The land was as good as annexed. Claude didn't mind having them as an additional enemy; they would not be much of one.
"The conditions are a little too harsh," Birkin said with some regret, "You didn't just ask them for so much land, you also wanted them to pay two million crowns. If I were their leader, I would rather fight it out with the Shiksans than accept your conditions. They have five million. Even if it takes ten to kill one Shiksan, they'd still defeat them..."
"They aren't that courageous," Eiblont critiqued from his seat, "Otherwise, they wouldn't have offered us the two territories in that deal. Their goal was to get us to fight the Shiksans in their stead, after all. If they aren't even brave enough to step on the battlefield, then they shouldn't have bothered putting up a front before us in the first place.
"In fact, I'm hoping they won't agree to Claude's conditions. That's the best-case scenario for the theatre. Like Claude said, the Shiksans will immediately sink deep into nikancha territory to kill and pillage. We'll send our forces out only after they're completely wiped out to wipe out the occupying Shiksan force. Then, we'll hit the jackpot."
Claude smiled in resignation. "I said that only to scare them. If it really ends up like that, we'd fare worse. I made that part up about cutting the Shiksan food supply. There are five million nikancha and if the Shiksans pillage their tribes, they'll gain enough rations. Even if they're eating nothing but potatoes, they can still fight without relying on a supply line from the rear.
"Not to mention, the nikancha nation occupies too much territory. We'll lose the initiative if the Shiksans breach their borders. The Shiksans outnumber us fewfold and the land is so wide it allows them many strategic possibilities. They'll have many ways to avoid our ambushes or surprise attacks.
"The large territory can both be an advantage and a disadvantage for us. In the former case, it means we'll have more than enough places to move and hide in. It won't be easy for the enemy to surround us. However, that means we won't be able to hold their bases to rest and recover. The large area is quite desolate. We need a water source, food and shelter where our troops can unwind, as well as a way to ensure the safety of our supply line.
"If I were the Shiksan commander, I would hold the nikancha settlements and the mines. That would be enough to deal with the units I send in clandestinely, because the more I send, the higher chance we have of encountering them. Yet if I send too few, we won't be able to conquer their bases, which in itself is more troubling than simply sending more men. That kind of environment would also negatively impact the health and morale of our troops."
Eiblont found it easier than Birkin to understand Claude's message. No army could possibly fight an enemy while tired and out of their element. Naturally, the exception to that was the legendary army on old Earth that managed to defeat the enemy and complete the 25-thousand-kilometre Long March. It was an army that humanity had never before seen.
Though, the two generals didn't know what he was thinking. All that was on their minds was how the nikancha nation was far too desolate, and the Shiksans had superiority in numbers, which would allow them to heavily guard the important water sources. If the Auerans snuck in and weren't able to secure a source of clean water, they would be assailed by disease. The effort needed to search for other sources of water would also wear the soldiers down, decreasing their fighting capability as a result.
While Claude seemed completely nonchalant about it, he would hold the eastern and northern mountain regions when the Shiksans finally come even if the nikancha didn't pay up, because there was no better place to stop the Shiksan army in their tracks. He only wanted to terrify the nikancha to see if he could glean some more benefits.
"It would be great if we could conquer the nikancha nation. There'll be enough land for four colonies, all of them filled with gold and silver mines. It's a shame they were allowed to occupy such resource-rich areas. They can produce enough ores worth eight million crowns each year!" Eiblont complained.
However, Claude had a completely different opinion. He sipped some red tea and said, "If we really conquered their territory, we'd fare much worse in the future. While there is much gold and silver there, that's not what our theatre lacks right now. Instead, we need manpower.
"Even after the move of the families of the two million soldiers into Cromwell and Balingana, the nine colonies' population only total up to 4.8 million. The seven other colonies, apart from towns and cities and Anfiston, have around 400 thousand people and are mostly undeveloped.
"Right now, the theatre's economy is developing rapidly, but we lack manpower. We're also facing a war and just formed a reserve corps. More than a third of the youths in the theatre have been recruited into the force. That's a really dangerous number that might affect the stability of our economy.
"I understand the temptation to get rich overnight. If we take the nikancha's land, the people who want to make it big by mining will flock over. By then, the theatre would no longer have livestock herders, factory workers and so on. Perhaps we'll have to do what the Shiksans colonists did before and rely on imports to meet all our needs.
"We won't be nearly as well off then. There's no point in having so much gold and silver that we can't eat or use. Prices for goods will only rise and our ambiguous relationship with the mainland only makes it more troublesome. The gold and silver are nothing but a curse for us. It might even be used as evidence to accuse us of embezzlement.
"We'll also attract other hungry wolves by holding those territories. Our corps, Thundercrash and Monolith, will be a thorn in the eyes of those in power in the royal capital. They will think of all sorts of methods to put those two corps under their control to ensure their enrichment won't be stopped. In the end, the final victor would force us to capture slaves for the mines like the Shiksan nobles did to increase their profit margins.
"That's why I would rather leave those territories in the hands of the nikancha. If we need gold or silver, we can simply trade for them with the products our colonies produce. It's akin to hiring them to mine for us. If they agree to our conditions, then they will be bound to us moving forward.
"No matter what kind of trade they want to make, they have to do it with us. We can easily make a stable stream of income off them. It's far less trouble than conquering their land and gathering our own workforce to run the mines."
It was his earnest belief that conquering the nikancha nation brought the theatre no tangible benefit. Given their lack of manpower, who would work in the farms or factories when there was gold and silver to be mined? Leaving the nikanchas in charge also held the benefit of providing a market for the theatre to sell their goods to, at a much higher price at that. The profits they earned could cover all their military funding.
When Claude brought up the current state of affairs between the kingdom and the theatre, Eiblont and Birkin sighed. If the voyage was smooth, Borkal should've arrived at the royal capital with his band of guards already. Who knew how Prince Wedri--, no, Stellin XI, would respond.
On the 19th of the 4th month, Year 593, the Shiksan fleet, Seaking, the Alliance's fleet, and the Fochsians' two fleets named after their deities that promised to make yearly shipments for the Shiksans for free, finally arrived at Cape Loducus as the escort of countless long-distance vessels.
The final three Shiksan corps arrived. It would be a trial like no other for Claude and the theatre's soldiers. They would come to face off against seven corps of 400 thousand Shiksan troops -- the largest number of enemies they've faced so far yet.